Second Coming, Part XII: The Revelation to John

Part I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII | VIII | IX | X | XI | XII | XIII

Nothing makes the study of Jesus’ parousia more real than the death of a Christian friend.

Tonight her family, church family, neighbors and friends – about 250-300 of us – gathered on the front lawn of her home where the shotgun fell from its case this morning and discharged. We sang softly, prayed, and wept together. She, her husband and two sweet children came to our Church of Christ as Baptists a couple of years ago and stayed where they were loved – and they have returned that love many times and many ways.

None of us has any doubt that Jesus receives her with joy into His eternal kingdom.

Standing there, I wondered if she could see us; if she wished she could share words of hope with us, but would have to wait a nanosecond of eternity until we all join her and therefore know those comforting truths first-hand.

Time and Tense and Tension

I hesitate to quote this since I haven’t been able to track down and read the entire essay, but I’ve read in several places now this heartbreaking quote from a theologian whose work has so often inspired me:

“The apocalyptic beliefs of the first Christians have been proved to be false. It is clear from the New Testament that they all expected the Second Coming in their own lifetime. And, worse still, they had a reason, and one which you will find very embarrassing. Their Master had told them so. He shared, and indeed created, their delusion. He said in so many words, ‘this generation shall not pass till all these things be done.’ And he was wrong. He clearly knew no more about the end of the world than anyone else. This is certainly the most embarrassing verse in the Bible.” (Essay “The World’s Last Night” (1960), found in The Essential C.S. Lewis, p. 385)

“Heartbreaking” I’ve called it because this same C.S. Lewis authored the extraordinary children’s fantasy The Chronicles of Narnia about a world where time passes more swiftly than in ours … yet he didn’t seem to realize that God’s eternity and our world’s continuum could experience time very differently, too – and that God is Lord of both.

I haven’t tried to be comprehensive in this study, or to quote all of the passages I’d like to. But I’ve included others that I think most folks would leave out, because I see something relevant in them. That’s the case with these excerpts from the first part of the Revelation to John of Patmos. I think we make a great mistake to study this work, skipping the opening seven epistles. Because the language used seems to get progressively more urgent:

Revelation 2:5, 16; 3:3, 11, 20 – “Remember the height from which you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place. … Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. … Remember, therefore, what you have received and heard; obey it, and repent. But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. … I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. … Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”

Did you catch it? “I will come” … “I will soon come” … “I will come like a thief” … “I am coming soon” … “Here I am!”

Chapter 20

This is the chapter so many focus upon when expounding their eschatological views. It does indeed have to do with judgment, but beyond that goes way beyond my wisdom or understanding:

Revelation 20: “And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time.

“I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony for Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or his image and had not received his mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who have part in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.

“When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth – Gog and Magog – to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the seashore. They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God’s people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night forever and ever.

“Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”

If you’ve come this far to find out what I think the Abyss is, or who Gog and Magog are, or whether the thousand years is literal or symbolic or past or present or future, you are about to be disappointed.

What I try to remember when reading Revelation is that it was – like all of the books of the New Testament – written by men with a specific audience in mind. While the Holy Spirit inspiring them may have nudged them to include eternal truths, the writers’ primary concern was to encourage, admonish and offer hope to the persecuted believers of the first century.

I don’t have an answer about conditional resurrection as opposed to eternal punishment for all non-believers. I don’t have any comment about the martyrs of century one being promised special honor. I don’t have any clever conclusions to draw about the various tenses in which Revelation is written or decryptions of apocryphal symbolism.

And for those who insist on taking every word in Revelation 20 literally, may I point out that right next door is the beautiful wedding story of Revelation 21 in which a cubic New Jerusalem is presented – coming out of heaven – to the bride by the groom – and it is big enough to barely fit inside a sphere the size of the moon. Far too big to land on this earth without considerable landing gear, rather than gemstone foundations! (Though I’m open to the idea that the new earth may not be like this one at all, including a shape other than spherical ….)

Judgment

What stands out to me in chapter 20 is that “…the dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.”

I don’t have a problem with that.

It is perfectly – and disturbingly – consistent with what Jesus said in Matthew 25.

I think Christianity has pendulum-swung a little too far by backing away from the truth of these passages. I’m well aware that there was probably an over-emphasis on them for perhaps hundreds of years (the last part of which includes my childhood!). I agree that there was probably not enough emphasis on grace and the power of Christ’s blood in forgiveness and the loving sovereignty of God.

But I believe, and have blogged many times before, that God is not an either/or proposition. He is love; He is also justice. He is mercy; He is also righteousness. If He were all righteousness, He would never have sent His Son to be tortured and die in place of those of us who deserve punishment. If He were all love, He would never have needed to send His Son to be stripped, spat upon, pierced, slugged, flailed and crucified in our place; he could have just extended blanket forgiveness to all who sin.

That’s why there is a chapter 20 and a chapter 21 – where God is pictured descending with His temple in the New Jerusalem to dwell on the new earth with his new creation in their incorruptible bodies, stooping down to wipe away the tears of His beloved children. (Tears of grief for loved ones lost? Perhaps. Maybe we’ll understand then that there were some who were never willing to believe and love and serve God in spite of what their lives seemed to be. But God might also wipe away tears of inexpressible joy so that we can see Him face-to-face, in all His glory. Just a thought from someone who has shed a few today.)

John closes the record of his vision with the “maranatha” blessing of other epistles. I don’t know how many years I read this, thinking that the call to “come” was solely a call to those who do not yet believe. (Too many years of singing invitation songs and hearing altar calls, I suppose!) The call to come is also clearly from God’s Spirit and the church (the bride) to the groom, Jesus. He will come – like the groom in his Matthew 25 parable of the ten virgins – to claim His bride at an unexpected hour of the night to sweep her off her feet and carry her to the home that He and His Father have prepared for them; for a feast and a celebration and a reunion of far-flung family. It is the ultimate in romance; the epic among love stories.

No wonder the bride should be eager for Him to come!

Revelation 22:17, 20 – “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!’ Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life. … He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’

“Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”

Part I | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII | VIII | IX | X | XI | XII | XIII

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