Monday 29 April 2013

Skeptics of heaven (Revelation 22)

Christ is coming

Two hundred years ago, the people of Leeds thought the world was coming to an end thanks to prophetic messages delivered to them by a chicken.

This chicken, owned by a lady named Mary Bateman in 1806, started laying eggs with the words, “Christ is coming” written on them. Those who read these words saw them as an apocalyptic sign from God.

The event recorded by Scottish author Charles Mackay in a book entitled, “Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds,” described how the eggs caused “a panicked terror“ as “a great number of visitors” descended upon Leeds to witness this strange phenomenon of a chicken delivering messages from God.

As it turned out, the eggs were a hoax. Mary had written the messages on the eggs herself using some sort of acid, then reinserting the eggs into the hen to be re-laid.


A deeper skepticism

Today we are looking at the last chapter of the bible to discover what God says will happen at the end of time. I fully expect that as we approach this chapter, many will come to it with a certain degree of skepticism. “What if it’s another hoax designed to scare us? How can I know it’s real?”

But what I really want to deal with today is a deeper form of skepticism - one that is not unbelief but actually stems from a position of faith and belief in Jesus Christ. One that doesn’t say, “How can I know it is true?” but rather says, “So what if it is true?”

I think it is this deeper form of skepticism that keeps genuine Christians from reading the book of Revelation. We think Revelation is for crackpots - people who have nothing better to do than to calculate the number of the beast or postulate the symbols of the seven seals and then posting them all over the Internet.

It’s not that we don’t believe the book of Revelation but that we don’t believe Revelation is for us today. It’s about heaven. It’s about the future. It’s just not that relevant today. So when we hear a sermon about Revelation, we think it’s going to be another lecture about the end of the world, in which case, Hollywood does a better job of portraying that reality. At least movies like Armageddon aren’t boring. But a talk about heaven? We expect it to go whoosh over our heads.

Why? It’s not that we don’t believe it’s true. We do, but there’s a voice in us that goes, “So what if it’s true?”

Revelation expects that response. It deals with that form of skepticism because Revelation - especially right here at the end in Chapter 22 - speaks directly to the skeptical believer, it speaks to the weary believer, and says, “Heaven is real and it affects you today.” What we are going to see is a preview of heaven, yes, but what Revelation does is address the impact that heaven has on our lives today.

And it does that at three levels - our heads, our hands and our hearts. Revelation speaks to our heads, “How do I know it’s true?” It addresses our hands, “How is my life and how are my actions affected by this truth?” Finally, it deals with our hearts, “Why do I have a hard time desiring this truth?”

There are three levels of skepticism. Our heads - what I know about heaven. Our hands - how I live in the light of heaven. And our hearts - why is it that I’m not excited by the prospect of heaven.

1. Our heads: The assurance of heaven

Look with me to verse 6.

The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God of the spirit of the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.”

“Behold, I am coming soon! Blessed is he who keeps the words of the prophecy in this book.”
Revelation 22:6-7

Why does the angel say to John, “These words are trustworthy and true.” Well, because in one sense, they are. It is reinforcing that fact that this is God’s word.

But in another sense, it’s because of the fantastic nature of the visions John has seen throughout the book - the visions of the throne room of God, the judgement of the seals, the return of Jesus Christ. These are amazing and overwhelming pictures of what God will do at the end of time.

And the angel is saying to John, “All of this which you have seen is real.”

In particular, the angel is referring to the vision John has just seen of heaven. Look with me to the beginning of the chapter.

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
Revelation 22:1-2

Notice the emphasis on life - the water of life and the tree of life - and how it is pointing to the source of life: God himself. From God’s throne flows the river of the water of life. Growing on each side of the river is the tree of life.

This is picture language taken directly from Genesis Chapter 2. God plants a garden in Genesis 2 and right in the centre of that garden of Eden is the tree of life.

Fast forward to the end of the bible. Here in heaven we see another garden. We see the tree of life here in this garden, only it has now become a garden city. The tree produces twelve crops of fruit, symbolising how eternal life is now available to the people of God (Remember how Israel was made up of twelve tribes of the sons of Israel).

The angel says to John, referring directly to this vision of heaven, “These words are trustworthy and true.” Why does he say that?

Not simply because these visions are hard to understand, though they are. The throne, the river, the tree of life (How can there only be one tree growing on both sides of the river?) I mean, these are pictures that ought to make us pause: What do they mean?

But there is a deeper struggle here, especially for Christian believers, in understanding what these symbols mean. Because Christian believers don’t simply ask, “Is this true?” but, some of us who do believe in the truth of these words might respond by saying, “Is this too good to be true.”

And the reason we say that; the reason these vision of abundant life sound almost too good to be true is because of the curse in verse 3.

No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of a sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.
Revelation 22:3-5

Here, right in the middle of the angel’s description of heaven, we find two big negatives: No curse and no more night.

This promise was first introduced back in Chapter 21, “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4) Heaven is described in terms of the negative. No more death. No more pain. No more curse.

You see, the real struggle for Christian believers is understanding the bible’s promise of life today in the light of their experience of death today. That’s our perspective and our experience today. We know what the curse means. We know what the darkness represents. Because we live in a world under this curse of death.

Don’t you see? Revelation speaks directly to our heads when we say, “I know this. I know God will fix this broken world. I know he will judge all evil through Jesus Christ. But sometimes that reality seems so far away.”

Revelation speaks to believer. “I know the bible promises eternal life. I know I’m forgiven of my sins through the death of Jesus on the cross. But I’m in pain right now.” Or, “My friend’s dying in the hospital right now.”

Revelation doesn’t deny death. It doesn’t deny pain or depression. It addresses it head on. Which is why, if you look back to the tree of life in verse 2, you see that this tree isn’t just there as a source of new life, of joy and triumphalism. No, the tree of life is also there for our healing.

And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
Revelation 22:2

It’s an odd thing to have in heaven, don’t you think? Leaves that are meant to heal.

You heal a wound. You heal someone who is sick; someone who is in pain. Yet again and again, woven through the bible’s description of heaven we find God healing his people and giving them comfort. It’s there in Chapter 7: “Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst... he will lead them to springs of living water.” (Revelation 7:16-17).

But I think the most powerful picture of God’s comfort we see in Revelation is there in Chapter 21: “They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 21:3-4) We will weep before our God and he will come to us with comfort and in tenderness. He will wipe away every tear.

It means that heaven isn’t a country club where businessmen turn up in their polo-shirts for a round of gold and a spot of tea. Heaven is a hospital. After all, the Greek word for “healing” in verse 2 (therapeian) is where we get the word “therapy”.

Think about this for a moment. We’re talking about eternal life, everlasting life that is in heaven with God but here, Revelation talks about healing. Why? It is because of the curse of death. It is speaking to us today who live under this curse, and it is saying to us, “One day, this curse will be lifted.” Verse 3: “No longer will there be any curse.”

There is therefore a sense in which heaven makes the most sense to those who know this curse of death, first-hand. Revelation was written for the suffering church. It was written for their comfort and assurance. If you are a Christian and you are in pain or in depression or in doubt, this book is specifically for you, to remind you that God is sovereign over your pain. He promises that a day will come when there will be no more pain and no more death.

More than that, verse 5 tells us a day will come when there will be no more night.

There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign forever and ever.
Revelation 22:5

The night that is described here is talking about the darkness of doubt, the darkness of fear, the darkness of our ignorance about God. We know this because it goes on to say that the true source of light in heaven is God himself. “The Lord God will give them light.”

What is it saying? Don’t you sometimes feel tired in the faith? Don’t you sometimes wish the things you are trusting in you could see with your own eyes? Revelation is saying to us that day will come.

Verse 4: “They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.” Friends, one day, you and I will see God. We will see Jesus. As clear as we see one another’s face here today, we will see the face of our Creator. And Revelation is assuring us: That day will come.

Until then, what do we do today? We hold on. We hold on to the testimony of Jesus Christ.

The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.”
Revelation 22:6

These things that John says must soon take place encompass all the events of the whole book of Revelation - all of God’s judgement as well as his salvation.

Revelation speaks to heads, assuring us that God’s word is true. That God’s word can be trusted even when that truth seems too good to be true. Especially when that truth seems too good to be true.

“These words are faithful and true,” says the angel.

2. Our hands: Our worship in heaven

The second point is our hands and this has application for our worship. How does heaven shape our worship of God? What will worship look like in heaven?

I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things.
Revelation 22:8

Pause and think about this for a moment. Imagine you could see heaven with your own eyes. How would you react? Would it make you bold? Or would it scare you? Look at how John responds.

And when I had heard and seen them, I fell down at the feet of the angel who had been showing them to me. But he said to me, “Do not do it! I am a fellow-servant with you and with your brothers the prophets and all who keep the words of this book. Worship God!”
Revelation 22:8-9

I really admire John for his honesty for writing this. He bows down and worships the angel and he tells us that the angels rebukes him for doing that. John is honest enough to tell us how foolish he was to do this.

The funny thing is, the same thing happens back in Chapter 19, verse 10. “At this I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, ‘Do not do it... Worship God!’” Meaning, this is the second time John has been tempted to worship an angel!

What an idiot! How foolish! How could he make the same mistake twice?

Friends, if it happened to John - twice - do you not think that we might be tempted to do the same? Revelation is there to point us to God, to focus on Jesus. Yet one of the great dangers of reading a book like Revelation is to fall down and worship something less than God.

In part, this applies to those of us who tend who quarrel over the book of Revelation (“This sign means this!” “No, you idiot, it means that!”).

But let me suggest to you a greater danger, one that has to do with heaven itself. In talking about heaven, in speaking about eternal life, in describing a joy that is everlasting, we as Christians will be tempted to worship the things of heaven instead of the God of heaven.

That is, we will tempted to bow down and worship idols: to worship something good we have received from God instead of God himself. This is a real danger for us who have received much from God, whether it is blessing, knowledge, friendship, opportunities, gifts. We we will be tempted to worship the things of heaven instead of the God of heaven.

That’s what John did. He did it, mistakenly, of course. But still he did it twice. Don’t you think we would be tempted to do the same? With the gifts God has given us? With the people he has put in our lives? With the knowledge and insight he has revealed in his word? Don’t you think that we, too, like John, might bow down to these good and heavenly things mistaking them for God himself?

Revelation gives us a picture of heaven, yes, but more than that, it draws our attention to the God of heaven. The throne of God and the lamb who is the source of life. We will see his face. His name will be on our foreheads (verse 4), meaning, we will belong to him and we will know God fully.

It’s not about who has the ticket to gain entry into heaven, like a bus pass. No, it is about who really knows the God of heaven.

If you are reading this and you are not a Christian, might I ask you: Do you know this God? That’s the point of heaven, by the way. It’s not simply a place that God will put you in if you’re really, really good, where he might drop by every now and then. Heaven represents God’s abiding presence in our lives.

Because that is what we ought to see in these pages: God himself. Heaven is not so much a place as it is God’s plan to glorify his Son, Jesus. Heaven is the final reality when Jesus returns to rule as the King.

So much so, that the bible can say to Christians: You are now in heaven. In Ephesians Chapter 2, Paul writes, “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms.” (Ephesians 2:6) Christians have been raised with Jesus through his death on the cross so that he now reigns over our lives. Jesus is our King. We live in obedience to his rule.

Do you know this King and do you worship this King? That’s our second point which has to do with our hands. That is, are we living our lives today worshipping Jesus, serving Jesus, in obedience to Jesus? Because that is what we will be doing in heaven. No one and nothing else deserves our worship other than Jesus, not even the angels of heaven.

Like a little kid who is given a brand new toy by his parents, who, instead of saying, “Thank you,” to his mum and dad; who, instead of hugging his mum and dad and acknowledging their love for him, runs in the opposite direction so that he can occupy himself with this new toy. The bible says that’s what we do with the blessings we receive from God. That’s idolatry: the worship of heaven instead of the God of heaven.

Which brings us to our last point, which I think, is the most important: our desire for heaven.

3. Our hearts: The longing for heaven

Look with me to verse 17.

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes (or desires), let him take the free gift of the water of life.
Revelation 22:17

This, I think, is the hardest thing to do. Most of us talk about going up to heaven or being in heaven. Yet the picture we have in the bible is Heaven coming down to us. The new Jerusalem comes out of heaven from God and descends to earth. We don’t go up to heaven. It comes down to us.

Verse 17, the Spirit and the bride say, “Come.” Verse 20 says, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” What is it talking about? Our expectation: what are we looking forward to?

If I’m honest, I read this and my first instinct is not, “I can’t wait for heaven.” My heart is saying, “I can’t wait for lunch,” or, “I’m looking forward to that movie.” My heart does not long for heaven.

If anything, heaven might come in the way of want I really want: to advance my career, to enjoy my life, to make lots of money. I don’t mind heaven in the future when I’m old and sick, but now? Now I want to live my life my way for myself.

And that’s where Revelation addresses us: at the level of our desires and it does this by creating new appetites in us. “Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever desires, let him take the free gift of the water of life.” The requirements for entry into this new heavenly reality is thirst! It is desire!

We are not meant to read about the river of life and go, “Hmm, how interesting. Maybe I’ll go fishing in heaven.” We are meant to thirst for its water. And what the bible does so powerfully is that it creates this thirst in us as we hear these words. “Let him who hears, say, ‘Come.’” See that connection between hearing and thirsting? The one who hears is the one who thirsts.

Christian believer, that’s why we need this book. Because we don’t thirst. Because we don’t have such desires. Because, if we’re honest, heaven’s just an idea to us, it is not a longing. But something miraculous happens when we read Revelation, or any book in the bible for the matter. God creates that hunger in us for him. God plants in us a new appetite that turns us away from our sin, from our selfishness, and makes us long for him.

If nothing else, these closing verses in Revelation are saying to us, “If you know that you don’t long for heaven, then listen! Listen to these words. Read these promises. And God will create that desire for himself through these words!”

Revelation speaks to our hearts and enables us to say to Jesus, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.” (Revelation 22:20)


Our heads, our hands and our hearts.

The reason why we read the book of Revelation and we need to come back again and again to the book of Revelation is because we need that assurance that comes from knowing God’s promises in his word - that God will do all that he says he will do. In the face of our doubt, God says you can trust in his word. In the face of our suffering, God says he will wipe away every tear.

Secondly, it’s speaks to our hands. Whom are we serving? To whom to we give our worship? Revelation warns us of the real danger of worshipping the things of God instead of God himself.

Lastly, Revelation speaks to our hearts. What are you truly longing for in this life and the next? If we are honest, our hearts long for selfish things. Our hearts long for earthly things. Our desires are for the here and the now. If we are honest, our hearts do not long heaven. Even as Christians, we can be skeptical of the promises of heaven, because if we know our hearts, we know we don’t belong in heaven.

But that’s why we have the book of Revelation! It speaks directly to our hearts creating that longing and desire for God. It reminds us that Jesus has secured our place in heaven through his own sacrifice on the cross. He paid for our sin. He intercedes on our behalf. And one day, he will come to rule as our King!

For the Christian, our deepest longing and our heart’s desire is for Jesus, but it is a longing that has been put there by God, by his Spirit, through his abiding word. He creates that longing in those who hear his voice and obey his will.

The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.

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