Heavenly Father, thank you that in the Scriptures we can by faith see through a door into heaven. Help us by your Spirit this evening to see Jesus with the eyes of faith; to see our world as it really is; and to see you in your glory. In Jesus name. Amen.
When we live in a world as troubled as ours is, and when our own lives can be as troubled as at times they are – not to mention when as a church we're facing all the challenges both of a declining denomination and of going multi-site – how can we celebrate with confidence?
Well we can and must celebrate – whatever's going on around us – because God is on the throne of heaven, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; he is bringing in his Kingdom; and we're a part of what he's doing. That's what the book of Revelation makes so clear.
My title this evening is 'Worthy is the Lamb'. This is the last in our series on the early chapters of the book of Revelation, and our passage this evening is Revelation chapter 5. We heard that read. You can find it on p 1030 in the Bibles. And you can also find my outline on the back of the service sheet. If you could have both the passage and the outline open in front of you that'll be a great help.
But what I want to do is to put Revelation 5 in the context of the whole of Revelation 1 to 7. Revelation is a highly structured book, full of picture language and symbolic numbers – especially the number seven. Seven stands for completeness, or the whole of something, or the essence of a thing – the thing as it really is. In fact the whole book of Revelation is a series of seven-fold visions. They show us the life of the church in action in the world, and the glorious destiny of the church in the new heaven and the new earth.
The first seven-fold vision runs from 1.9 to the end of chapter 3, and it's a vision of the risen Jesus speaking to the seven churches that really stand for the church in all places and at all times. The second seven-fold vision, of which chapter 5 is a part, runs from 4.1 to 8.1. It's a vision of the unseen reality of heaven and earth now, ending in the glory of the final arrival of the kingdom of God. We see the seven seals on the scroll of history being opened by the Lord and Saviour Jesus – the Lion and the Lamb.
So here's a quick overview of Revelation 1 to 7. My headings are on the outline.
First, THE PROMISE JESUS GIVES TO THE CHURCH
This is that first seven-fold sequence, in 1.9 – 3.22. And in this section Christ speaks to the whole church on earth now.
Let me say that it's easy to be rather daunted by Revelation, but you shouldn't be. Once you get used to it, the picture language and symbolism of Revelation communicate in a very graphic, punchy and and powerful way that grabs your imagination and sticks in the mind. If some of the details pass you by, that doesn't matter too much. The point of it is not in the detail. It's in the big picture.
So for instance, in Revelation Jesus is both the Lion and the Lamb. He is the one who gave his life for the sins of the world like a sacrificial lamb. He is also the all conquering King – the lion. It is quite possible for him to be both the Lion and the Lamb at the same time. Not literally, of course. But truly.
So the whole of Revelation is this series of visions given by the risen Jesus to John. The letters to the seven churches in chapters 2 and 3 as we've seen over the last few weeks, are not only to those individual churches. They are the message of the risen Christ to the whole church throughout history, and to every individual local manifestation of that universal church. That's why we still read them today. We see ourselves reflected in them and addressed face to face, as it were, by Jesus. The seven churches represent the whole church.
It is a church, as presented in Revelation, that struggles. Don't we know it. Life for the universal church is tough. The church struggles with the world, the flesh and the devil.
So what is Jesus's message? He warns. He rebukes. He urges. He encourages. And he also gives a series of promises. Put together, they make up one massive promise to the universal church. Let me put them all together and read them through. You can follow the references, from the end of each of the letters. This is the promise of Jesus to us, the church:
(2.7) To the one who conquers I will grant to eat of the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God.
(2.11) The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.
(2.17) To the one who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.
(2.26-28) The one who conquers and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father. And I will give him the morning star.
(3.5) The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.
(3.12) The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name.
(3.21) The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.
This promise of Jesus is both exclusive and inclusive. It applies to all those who conquer – who overcome. That is, it applies to all those who show by their perseverance in living by faith in Christ despite all the pressures that they belong to Jesus. Jesus knows the desperate struggle of the church on earth. So he reassures us with his promise.
It is a promise of everlasting life. It is a promise of forgiveness and cleansing. It is a promise that we will be co-heirs with him, sharing in his glory, reigning with him, knowing him and being individually known by him – by name, face to face, eternally secure in the heavenly city, never to leave his side again.
That is the promise that Jesus gives to the whole church on earth now. He is in the midst of the church. It is his church. He bought it with his blood. The church sins and the church suffers, but he will never let it go. He will bring her safely through to eternity. That's a promise.
That's the first seven-fold series in chapters 1 to 3. Then the next section gives us a vision of the universal church from a different perspective. So my second heading is this:
Secondly, THE OUTWORKING OF THE PROMISE
We're looking now at 4.1 – 7.8. And what we have here are pictures of the whole church on earth and in heaven until the Day of Judgement.
What we get a sight of here is the gathering of all believers around the throne of God. But the remarkable thing is that in this section the earthly church is clearly still continuing. We are seeing the earthly church that Jesus addresses in the seven letters of chapters 2 and 3. But we are also seeing the heavenly church of those who have gone before. So 4.1 says:
After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven!
In other words, here is the church both on earth and in heaven. Let me quickly highlight the key elements of the vision.
At the centre of the church, then, is the overwhelming, majestic, awesome reality of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. That vision of God is at the heart of chapters 4 and 5, as Ken showed us as he took us through chapter 4 last week. So:
(4.2) At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian …
(4.5) From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God [Which is referring to the one Holy Spirit. It isn't saying there are seven Holy Spirits. Remember that seven refers to wholeness or, in relation to God, perfection.]
(5.6) And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain …
The Father on the throne, the Spirit before the throne, the Son beside the throne. One God in three, ruling all things.
Then around the throne are the representatives of God's creation (4.6):
And round the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures …
In a circle around them are the representatives of the whole church. Twenty four is two times twelve which maybe refers to the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles – the Old Covenant and the New Covenant people of God in heaven (4.4):
Round the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads.
Then in a larger circle around them, there are the angels. 5.11:
Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, "Worthy is the Lamb who was slain…"
But that is not all. Later on, as the seals on the scroll of history are being opened, there are others revealed. 6.9:
I saw under the altar [that is to say, safely in the very presence of God] the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 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?" 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.
Clearly this is talking about the period between the coming of Christ and his final return. The Day of Judgement has not yet come. In other words this is now. The church suffers. Some people are dying for their faith. They always have. They are now, around the world. They will continue to do so. And those who do, it seems, are given a place of special honour, even as they are told to be patient and wait.
But the suffering of God's people, even to death, will never destroy them. Why? Because they are protected. They are sealed, to use the language of Revelation. All the destructive forces unleashed on the earth will not finish them. Look on to 7.3, where there's a kind of flashback. A messenger of God cries out to the angels who are about to unleash destruction:
"Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads."
These 'servants of God' are the members of the church still struggling away on earth. These are the overcomers who Jesus speaks to in the seven letters, who make up the true church on earth. They are the servants of God, the inheritors of the promise. We are the servants of God if we listen to the voice of Jesus and remain faithful.
All this is an astounding insight into the way things really are. You won't hear this on the news. You won't see this on the filmed reports from trouble spots around the world. But this is the real story. This is the situation of the church – all God's people, on earth and in heaven. This is our situation – whatever we're facing.
So this true vision – this understanding of reality behind the scenes – transforms how we see the past, the present and the future.
It transforms how we see the present. Looking up to heaven from earth causes us to be realistic optimists. We're under no illusions that the earth is being ravaged by war, hunger, disease, natural disaster and death. The four horsemen have been let loose. But God is on the throne and we are safe – not from those things but through those things – for all eternity. That is our experience of God by faith in the midst of present troubles.
Our mission partner Paul Wright has had to return to Nepal to help in the aftermath of devastating earthquakes. A close friend of ours from university days found out a year ago that she has cancer. She has now been told that she has weeks to live. Christians are being driven out of war-torn Syria. And yet in all these situations those who belong to Christ experience the peace that passes all understanding. In all these situations, in the midst of suffering, there can be joy and celebration because God is on the throne of heaven and his kingdom is coming and we are safe
And how we see the past is transformed too. Looking to the cross causes us to rejoice in all that Christ has done. Heaven has come to earth in the person of Jesus. The Lamb has been slain for the sins of the world – for your sins, for my sins. A people have been ransomed. That is our experience of forgiveness in the face of past guilt and present sinfulness. So there can be celebration in place of guilt. The burden of sin is lifted off our backs.
And how we see the future is also transformed. Looking forward to the coming Kingdom causes us to give glory to God. God's people will be vindicated. God's enemies will be destroyed. And the one who is both the Lion and the Lamb will be glorified. That is our experience of hope in the face of our fears for the future. What are you inclined to worry about as you face the future – for you, your family, your church, your nation? What if the worst happens? Looking forward to the coming Kingdom gives us hope and causes us to give glory to God. Instead of being fearful, we can celebrate.
So in the second half of chapter 7, the scene shifts again, and we get a view of the end. Which brings me to my third and final heading:
Thirdly, THE FULFILMENT OF THE PROMISE
This, then, is 7.9-17, where we are given a vision of the whole church with God in eternity. And it makes the heart leap in anticipation. 7.9:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number,from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes [that's the clothing of forgiveness and acceptance and the gift of holiness], with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, "Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!"
And from 7.13:
Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, "Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?" I said to him, "Sir, you know." And he said to me, "These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation [in other words the overcomers who have suffered and struggled on earth]. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb [that is, they are more than conquerors by faith in Christ who died for their sins].
"Therefore 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. They shall hunger no more, neither thirst any more; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For 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."
The suffering, and the sinning, and the wearying struggle, at last, are over. That is the destiny of those who belong to Jesus. That is what we hold on to. By faith, we reach out and take hold of that day. That is where we are, even in the thick of the battle. Realism; optimism; joy; and glory. Those are the notes of the song that we sing. That is why we celebrate.
Let's pray. And let's join with all those who've gone before and with all the angels in the words that are being sung around the throne:
Worthy is Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!
To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever!