A few years back I was out for dinner with Mike and Jon, mates I went to Bible college with. We had a magnificent steak at the Berrima Pub. It’s one of those places where you cook your own steak on a big open grill, and I love that! So it’s worth a visit if you get the chance. Anyway, it was cold and wet, the middle of winter. We had our dinner, got back in the cars, and headed to Mike’s place where we were staying the night. Mike got in his car and I jumped in Jon’s.
The road from Berrima back toward Mittagong has no street lights on it, so it was pitch black and pouring rain. It was as slippery as an eel covered in olive oil. Jon and I are yapping away trying to solve the problems of the world as you do. We’re doing a bit under 80 ks. Then this flippin’ enormous wombat waddles out into the middle of the road right in front of us. I don’t know if you know this. but God made wombats out of reinforced concrete. They are a bit like colossal furry speed humps. If you hit a wombat in your car, it will destroy your suspension, you will be upside down in a ditch, and the wombat will limp away, bruised and mildly annoyed but otherwise unmoved by the experience.
Jon and I know this, and since there’s no cars coming the other way, Jon swerved to the right. I grabbed hold of the bar on the A-pillar. We were headed for the ditch on the right side of the road, so Johnny swerved back to the left and of course the back of the car started to swing around. And time stood still—you know that feeling you get when something like this is happening—everything just slows down. We both had that feeling. It’s pelting down with rain. The car’s now sideways across the road. We seem to have increased our speed and Jon has no control over the car at all. We’re both passengers. The wombat is blissfully unaware of our situation and continues plodding along.
We’re heading for the edge of the road by now, still in slow motion. Looking at each other, mildly concerned, I said, “This’ll be close, mate”. He said, “Mmm, looks that way”
Now backwards, we left the road and headed into about 20 metres of gravel. It’s spraying everywhere, quite noisy as it is hitting the underneath of the car, but we started to slow down as the back wheels dug into the gravel. Still heading for the Armco rail, we braced ourselves. But just before we hit it, the car stopped. Then time went back to normal speed. We got out and had a look. We’d stopped about six inches from the Armco rail. We had a nervous chuckle, thanked Jesus, and looked up at the wombat, which was still waddling along, utterly disinterested. So we got in the car and drove home … slowly. The whole slide from beginning to end probably only took ten seconds but it felt like half an hour: the ‘slo-mo’ was on.
I don’t know if that sort of thing’s ever happened to you, but have you had that feeling when something terrible is happening and everything feels like it’s in slow motion? It can happen if you get into a fight, or you get home to find that your house has been robbed, or if you witness a car accident or you’re involved in one. Something chaotic that hits you emotionally as well as physically, and it feels like you’re having an out of body experience. That’s what that slide felt like in my mate’s car. Most of us will be familiar with this feeling. This is what chapter 7 of Revelation feels like.
Revelation is a funny book. It all starts with a bang. We meet the risen and glorified Jesus in the first chapter. Then it calms down for a bit with the letters to the churches. This part in chapters 2 and 3 feels like some of the other letters in the New Testament, and most of us are probably familiar with them. It cranks up a notch in chapter 4 when we have this picture of God’s throne in heaven. Then it cranks up another notch in chapter 5 when God’s holding this scroll in his hand, and at first, no one in heaven can open it, This is very sad but then finally Jesus turns up. He’s called the triumphant ‘Lion of Judah’. Only when John turns around to look at this lion, he sees a lamb that looks like it’s been slaughtered, but is very much alive! This Jesus is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, who died but rose again conquering Satan, sin, and death. Only Jesus is able to open this scroll in God’s hand.
Now, the scroll doesn’t look like much. It’s sealed with seven seals. It turns out that this scroll is pretty much God’s master plan, with all the details of how he will save his people and judge sin. So, it’s basically the story of the world from beginning to end. The rest of Revelation is what’s written on this scroll.
When Jesus starts opening the seals in chapter 6, Revelation gets properly nuts. You may have heard the phrase ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’. It comes from Revelation 6. The first four seals on the scroll are these guys, and they are part of the way God passes judgement on sin in his world. They bring war, violence, hunger, poverty, greed, oppression, and death with them. Of course, God’s own people are caught up in all those things. So halfway through chapter 6, when the fifth seal is opened, they ask, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?”
It’s a good question, isn’t it? What about the innocents? What about God’s people? I thought the whole point of being a Christian was that God is able to preserve our lives and bring us safely to heaven. So, what gives?
The hits keep coming and the question goes unanswered. The sixth seal is opened, and it’s natural disasters, things like earthquakes or tsunamis.
It’s an utterly chaotic scene and yet a quick glance at the news each night will tell you that Revelation 6 looks a lot like everyday life: wars, hunger, poverty, greed, destruction, and death. So listen to how Revelation chapter 6 ends, from verse 15:
Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of Him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?” (NIV)
That’s the question on everyone’s lips every day. When we get caught up in all the stuff that happens because we live in a world that’s stained by and feels the effects of God’s judgement on sin—everything from war to domestic violence, to famine and poverty, tsunamis and earthquakes, droughts and bushfires, sickness and death (all creation is groaning under the weight of sin)—the question has to be asked: who can stand up in it? The obvious answer seems to be ‘no one’—only that’s not the answer at all. The answer’s in Revelation chapter 7.
Revelation 7 is the ‘slow-mo’ button. Everything just slows down here. Look at the way it starts. Remember, this is in the middle of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse carving the place up, martyrs asking ‘how long’, and a litany of natural disasters. The first three verses of chapter 7 say this:
After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth to prevent any wind from blowing on the land or on the sea or on any tree. Then I saw another angel coming up from the east, having the seal of the Living God. He called out in a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm the land and the sea: “Do not harm the land or the sea or the trees until we put a seal on the foreheads of the servants of our God.” (NIV)
That’s the ‘slow-mo’ button! The question at the end of chapter 6 (Who can stand?) is now answered, and the answer is those who are sealed by God, in other words, Christians.
The seal the angel is talking about is the Holy Spirit. And he’s busy. Part of his job is to make us more like Jesus—which as you can imagine is a full-time gig—but he does much more than that. He’s God’s stamp of approval on us, guaranteeing our eternal rest.
I am still learning about what the Holy Spirit does in my life. My guess is that most of us are the same. So you’ll be pleased to know that on two Tuesday nights in January, the 7th and the 14th, our very own Dr David Jackson is going to be giving us a couple of lectures on the Holy Spirit, which will be fantastic! What I do know, though, is that the Holy Spirit is my seal, my guarantee. He marks me out as belonging to God. It’s a bit of a lame illustration, but he’s like a stamp you get on your hand or wrist in a theme park or a concert or a night club. That stamp tells the guy at the door that you’ve paid your money and you can get in. The Holy Spirit is like that for us, only we didn’t pay the price, but Jesus did.
The Holy Spirit assures us that we will be eternally safe. We’ll all suffer various things here for certain, but Revelation 7 is telling us that regardless of that, God’s people are sealed with the Holy Spirit and assured that we will all make it to heaven.
But then, that begs the question: how many of us are there? Since we’re talking about all of God’s people throughout all history, how many are we talking about? It must be a big number! But it’s not. Look at verse 4.
Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel. (NIV)
From there down to the end of verse 8, we read that there are 12,000 from each tribe in Old Testament Israel. And haven’t those few verses caused some arguments throughout history!
If you’re not all that familiar with the book of Revelation, it’s written in what was a popular style of writing back in the day known as ‘Apocalyptic literature’. One of the stand-out features of this gear is that there are numbers all the way through it, and the numbers aren’t meant to be taken as concrete figures. They’re symbolic of different things.
If chapter 7 finished at verse 8, and we were only told about the 12,000 people from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, it would be very confusing. We could easily think that there were only 144,000 people in heaven, which would be rather disappointing.
Mercifully, we aren’t supposed to imagine that there are literally only 144,000 people in heaven. It’s a symbolic number representing the full number of God’s people, from Old Testament times and New Testament times.
The number ‘a thousand’ in Revelation always represents completion. There were twelve tribes in Israel, and it’s no coincidence that Jesus had twelve main disciples. Over in Revelation 21, we see another picture of heaven. There are twelve gates. Each gate has a name of one of the twelve tribes of Israel. And there are twelve foundation stones for the wall, and each stone has one of the apostles’ name on it. So here in Revelation 7, you’ve got 12,000 people from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, representing the full number of God’s people from both Old and New Testament times. If you’re not quite convinced, look at the next couple of verses. See, John only ‘hears’ the number 144,000 in verse 4, but he turns around and ‘sees’ the vast crowd in verse 9. Have a look there:
After this I looked, and before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne and to the Lamb.” (NIV)
144,000 people is a big crowd, but if they all stood still for a while, you could count them easily enough. But it’s a symbolic number. John says we’re not going to be able to count all the people in heaven! All of God’s people from Old Testament times and now are there. And they’re from every nation on earth. Heaven is multicultural, so being part of a church called ‘Multicultural Bible Ministries’ is good practice for eternity! They’re wearing white, which is symbolic again. It tells us they’ve all been made righteous by Jesus, and they are doing what Christians are meant to be doing: joyfully praising God and Jesus.
And the angels standing around the throne and the elders and the four living creatures we met back in chapter 4 and 5 all join in the worship as well, so verse 11:
Amen! Praise and glory, and wisdom and thanks and honour and power and strength – be to our God for ever and ever! Amen! (NIV)
The last section is really cool. I’m not sure John understands exactly what he’s seeing. It seems that he has a slightly confused look on his face. (At least that’s the way I read it.) So, one of the elders leans over and asks him a question in verse 13:
Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes – who are they, and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.” (NIV)
I’m pretty sure that’s John saying, “Well, I hope you know because I sure as heck don’t!”
And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” (NIV)
Here’s another word that has caused no end of arguments between Christians:tribulation. Honestly, all denominations are the same with this stuff. We argue about stuff that, plain and simple, doesn’t matter, instead of getting on with the Great Commission and making disciples of Jesus from all nations. In the church I grew up in, say there were 60 old blokes in church on a Sunday morning. There would have been 70 different opinions on what the Great Tribulation was. They’d quote all the old Southern American Baptist preachers who had written books and commentaries on Revelation—Darby, Warfield, Schofield—and they’d argue about this stuff for hours. I loved it back in the day, because like any teenager I was impressionable, passionate, and I thought I knew everything. But we majored on the minors. We spent ages talking about stuff that doesn’t matter that much, and not enough time on the stuff that does. This is a constant danger for Christians, and we need to make sure we spend most of our time on the stuff that matters.
Anyway, here’s what the Great Tribulation is: life. So, the people in heaven, dressed in white robes, washed clean from their sin and righteous, they’re just ordinary Christians like you and me who get through life with their faith in Jesus intact, and now they’re dancing with Jesus and singing His praises for all they’re worth! The basic message of Revelation is, ‘Don’t Worry: Jesus Wins’. It’s mostly pretty simple. As wacked as it sometimes sounds, most of Revelation just tells us not to worry because Jesus wins and so do we.
And then you get to the last part of Revelation 7. This is awesome! Red Bull might give you wings but whatever drug they put in that garbage wears off. This doesn’t. Listen to what this elder says to John about the Christians in heaven. No matter what part of history they’re from or where they’re born, this is what John saw. So this is reality if you are a Christian, reading from verse 15:
[T]hey 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. Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne will be their shepherd; He will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes. (NIV)
So, here’s what Revelation 7 is saying to us today. The question we began with was: who can stand when God’s judgement is poured out? Our existence on this planet is difficult. Plenty of people live in standards way below our own: around 2 billion live in poverty. I can't speak for those people and we’re not them. You can only play the hand you’re dealt. So what’s this say to us in Sydney at the end of 2019? We were either born here or moved here. And this is by some margin the best place on earth to live. But even so, life is difficult enough here. We have the best standard of living, we enjoy peace, free and fair elections, we have beaches and the bush and the mountains and deserts and snow fields. Australia is an amazing place! We are safe and almost entirely secure.
And yet we have one of the highest rates of teenage suicide. And at least a couple of middle-aged men take their own lives each week. A lot more think about it. A whole heap of people self-harm. Around 30% of us struggle with mental illness. Our relationships with our families and our friends often give us joy but just as often make us cry ourselves to sleep at night. Many of us have issues with alcohol. Some of us struggle with weed and if it was legal plenty of us would be stoned fairly often. As you get older the only thing that changes is the degree to which your life and your family and your marriage is dysfunctional. Some of us are mildly dysfunctional, some of us are really in trouble. Being a Christian doesn’t prevent you from going through a divorce. My parents are divorced. Some of you are. Some of you might be one day. All of us know people who are divorced and we know it affects the whole family, kids especially.
And then there’s another bunch of people who’ve managed to negotiate most of life and so far, haven’t struggled that much with any of that stuff. If that’s you, you probably struggle to understand grace, and you’re probably quite proud of your achievements spiritually and relationally. And when you’re honest about yourself, you look down on other people who haven’t quite hit the high standards you’ve managed so far.
Some of us have been through significant illness. Others of us live with pain or discomfort. Most of us will get pretty sick at some point. For some of us it will be self-inflicted by lifestyle choices. For others, it’ll just be the hand we’re dealt. All of us have been to the funeral of someone we love, and all of us will one day attend our own funeral as well.
And you know, all of us are in one or more of those groups of people, trying to live the life we know we should be living, but often feeling like we’re fighting a battle we doubt we can win. and we’re just tired. We’re tired of pretending we’ve got it all together, tired of putting on the ‘church face’ in the car park every week. Sometimes life just seems too hard.
It might not be all of you. I could be way off, but I figure I’m a fairly normal sort of bloke and so most of the stuff I've just said applies to me as much as it applies to any of you. Life’s tough, and it shouldn’t surprise us. The Four Horsemen are running about the place. Christians are being martyred in many countries. Natural disasters are everywhere. The whole of creation is groaning as in the pains of childbirth waiting for the redemption that is coming. And you and I, along with all God’s people all around the world--and there are somewhere around 2.5 billion Christians on planet earth—all of us are caught up in it, doing our best to stay solid despite all the stuff that gets in our way.
So, let this last chunk of verses just wash over you for a bit, because no matter what life throws at us, if you know Jesus, if you’re a Christian, any sort of Christian, a messed-up one, a depressed one, an anxious one, a bitter, confused or angry one, a doubting Christian, or even, can you believe it, a self-righteous arrogant one, the day is coming when all the stuff that wears us down and hinders us from living for Jesus like we really want to will be forgotten. This is what we have to look forward to.
John sees this. He sees our future, and says we are before the throne of God and we serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter us with his presence. Never again will we hunger; never again will we thirst. The sun will not beat down on us, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb at the centre of the throne—the Lord Jesus himself—he will be our shepherd, he will lead us to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from our eyes.”