Truth Wins (Revelation 19:11-20:10)

Chatswood Baptist Church http://www.chatswoodbaptist.com.au

Revelation 19:11 – 20:10

“Truth Wins”

 

Are we naïve to hope for justice?

Quite a number of years ago I saw the Woody Allen movie ‘Match Point’. I was deeply disturbed by it, which I’m pretty sure, was the point. The put it simply, you become more and more disturbed and upset by the behaviour of the main character, the anti-hero, waiting in hope for everything to become right again… but it doesn’t. The lead character, Chris, gets away with adultery, an ever-growing web of lies, and the murder of his mistress, her unborn baby and her elderly neighbour. He almost gets caught by a detective who is sure he’s behind the murders, but in the end it’s a simple accident of chance that means someone else is convicted in his place. I remember I was left feeling hollow inside, and pretty sure I was never going to watch a Woody Allen movie again!

But as I said, I think Woody had achieved exactly what he wanted with me. He’d disturbed my sense of justice. I’m no film critic, but my understanding is that Match Point is an examination of the larger themes of life, and ultimately about the question of justice. He presents a world where there is no real justice. Sometimes the bad guys get caught, and sometimes they don’t. He’s saying we’re naïve to think that guys like this will ultimately get what they deserve. No, we live in a world where lies, intimidation and violence are the winners… just look around you.

The original recipients of John’s dramatic, vision-filled letter, the book of Revelation, were living under the intimidating and oppressive rule of the Roman Empire. They had come to believe the good news about Jesus, that he was in fact the true ruler and saviour of this world, and that only through faith in him and faithfulness to him could anyone find peace and life. But they lived out this hope under the oppressive lie of the Empire of Rome. The emperor of Rome claimed the place of God. He demanded allegiance and worship. The Empire enforced this, through all sorts of complex social and economic motivations, but ultimately through death.

The introductory messages to the seven churches make it clear that many Christians found this very difficult, as we can easily imagine. They were tempted to compromise, to give in, to give up… to avoid suffering. It would have been so easy to be worn away over time and to conclude hopelessly that the beast of Rome would win. The lie of Rome would triumph. That they would always be subject to the pride and power of idolatrous human kingdoms.

And it must be just as easy for Christians today in places like north Africa, the middle east, and many parts of Asia, to likewise conclude that the deception and intimidation of human leaders and institutions will be the final word. To give up hope, and therefore to give in and compromise with the demands of the state, because this ‘God’ that they’ve been trying to be faithful to doesn’t seem like he’s ever going to do anything.

It’s easy for us to think that the lies of secularism have triumphed over Christianity in the West, and that history will just a long dark tunnel of atheism. It will become more and more wearying to stand up under public scrutiny for holding to beliefs and opinions about sexuality and marriage that are deemed unacceptable and dangerous by the popular culture. We will be tempted to give up proclaiming that Jesus is Lord and the only means of redemption, because it just seems ridiculous and unacceptable. As we look around at our world, it is easy to become convinced by Woody. Lies and intimidation win, or at best, it just comes down to chance.

But into this rather depressing picture, the book of Revelation declares loud and clear the very opposite. Yes, the beast of human empires iswaging war against God’s people in this age, and yes, he appears to be winning – to be crushing us. But no, the lies and the intimidation of the beast – ultimately of Satan himself – will not win. Truth will win. God’s truth – the message of Jesus Christ, that his people hold on to and proclaim in the face of the lies of the beast – this truth will win. We are not naïve to hope for justice, and we are not misguided to hold onto the truth of Christ, even till the point of death. That’s what I think is the overarching message of our passage in Revelation today, although there’s a bit more detail to it than that…

 

A Vision of the End

So first of all, let’s get an overall sense of what John sees and reports in this passage, and then reflect more on what it means. From 19:11 on, John describes heaven opening up and before him is a heavenly figure – a warrior really. He sees a rider on a white horse with blazing eyes, many crowns on his head, and a robe dipped in blood. The armies of heaven are following him, each warrior on their own white horse, and dressed in white. And then, bizarrely, shockingly, a sharp sword is coming out of the mouth of the rider, with which he will apparently ‘strike down the nations’. This rider comes to wage war and judge the world with justice. On his robe and on his thigh is inscribed King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

John’s attention is then grabbed by an angel, standing in the sun, crying out to all the birds flying in the air, “Come and gather for the great supper of God! Get ready to eat the flesh of kings, generals, and the mighty, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, great and small.” The tension is building, and the disturbing language makes it very clear that there is about to be a terrible, horrific slaughter…

The scene then shifts again as John sees the beast, first introduced to us in Chapter 13, and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to wage war against the rider and his army. John is witnessing the great, final showdown – like the battle lines being drawn up in the final battle scene of an epic movie like the Lord of the Rings. But suddenly it’s all over. The beast, along with the false prophet (that is the second beast, who comes up from the earth in chapter 13) are simply gathered up and thrown into the fiery lake of burning sulphur – never to be heard from again. And the rest, the armies, the kings and so on, are killed in a moment by the sword coming out of the rider, and the birds gorge themselves on their promised feast of flesh. The victory is sudden and absolute.

But the vision is not complete. John then sees an angel coming down from heaven, with the key to the Abyss and holding a great chain. He seizes the dragon, that is the devil, who summoned up the beasts in chapter 13 to war against God’s people, and he locks him up into the Abyss for 1000 years. John then sees thrones and judges set in place for the great judgement, and those put to death for their witness to Jesus, rather than compromising with the beast, are raised to life and reigned with Christ for the 1000 years that Satan is bound. John explains that when the 1000 years are over, Satan will be released and will deceive the nations of the four corners of the earth, gathering them for a great final battle. Like the previous battle scene, the tension builds. This dreadful army is like the sand on the seashore in number and marches up and surrounds the camp of God’s people. But once again, it’s over before it starts. John sees fire come down from heaven and devours the vast horde in a moment, and the devil is thrown into the lake of burning sulphur along with the beasts – doomed to torment forever and ever.

Now the vision goes on, all the way till chapter 21 verse 8 – all of this is a vision of the end of this age and the dawning of the new. We’re going to focus on the rest of the vision next week, but just to say that what John sees is essentially the final judgement of all people and the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth, the new Jerusalem.

 

A Vision of Vindication for God’s Faithful

But what does it mean? What should we make of the various battle scenes – why are there two ‘final’ battles?? What’s significance of the rider, the armies, the sword, the birds, and most of all… what’s with the thousand years?? Well before we come to grapple with the meaning of the thousand years in particular, we’ll try to get a sense of the overall meaning. And to do that, it’s worth appreciating a couple key old testament texts which lie behind John’s vision. What he sees is presented as a fulfilment of these promises.

 

Daniel 7

The primary text that helps us understand what Revelation 19 and 20 are all about is Daniel Chapter 7. We’ve seen before that this apocalyptic vision, given to Daniel hundreds of years before John’s vision, provides a lot of the language, the imagery and the overarching concepts of Revelation, particularly the oppressive beasts and final victory of God over them. John’s vision now alludes to the final judgement of God presented in Daniel 7. It would be worth reading the whole chapter later, but just to give you an idea of the parallels…

Daniel sees ‘thrones set in place’, the heavenly court sits and ‘the books were opened’ (v9-10). He sees the boasting and oppression of the horn and beast ‘until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire.’(v11) He sees one like a Son of Man given all authority in heaven and earth – an eternal kingdom that will never be destroyed – and the saints, the people of God, receive the kingdom and possess it forever (13, 14, 18). The parallels to the major themes of Revelation 19 and 20 are very striking. This is the great day that God has been promising, when he will strip arrogant human rulers of their power and vindicate his people who have been languishing under foreign and idolatrous rule. God will establish his eternal kingdom with the saints themselves pictured as ruling under God. Verses 26 and 27 sum it up well, “But the court will sit, and his power (the arrogant king) will be taken away and completely destroyed forever. Then the sovereignty, power and greatness of all the kingdoms under heaven will be handed over to the holy people of the Most High. His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all rulers will worship and obey him.” This is essentially what John sees happening in Revelation 19 and 20.

 

Ezekiel 38-39

Another key passage that John alludes to, and which helps connect his vision to the hope of the prophets, is Ezekiel 38 and 39. This is very clear from the final battle described in 20:7-10, where Satan gathers the nations in the four corners of the earth for battle, and John slips in the reference, ‘Gog and Magog’ as the names of these nations. The only other place in the bible Gog and Magog are referred to is Ezekiel 38 and 39, where God calls Ezekiel to prophesy against a mysterious figure, ‘Gog, of the land of Magog’. Now again, it would be worth your while to read over these two chapters, but the gist of it is that God lures the nations of the world (represented by Gog of the land of Magog) to wage war against his vulnerable people. But then God intervenes and completely annihilates the nations and their kings, calling on the birds of the air to come and feast on them. He does this to vindicate his own name, and so that all the world, including his own people, will know once and for all that he is the LORD God – the holy one of Israel. There are lots of parallels, but the most striking is that God instructs Ezekiel to ‘call out to every kind of bird’ to assemble and get ready to ‘eat the flesh of mighty men and drink the blood of the princes of the earth’ (Ezek. 39:17-18). These allusions help us understand that John understands both of the great battles in Revelation 19 and 20 to be a fulfilment of this prophecy. It is the same, terrible, final judgement of God on the nations, through which he vindicates his own holy name and redeems his people.

 

Psalm 2

And the final Old Testament passage that is clearly alluded to is Psalm 2. Actually it’s more than an allusion, as John quotes from Psalm 2 in verse 15, “He will rule them with an iron sceptre.” Clearly John understands that this awesome vision of the rider on the white horse with a sword coming out of his mouth ‘with which to strike down the nations’ is the promised King of Psalm 2. The Psalmist sees the nations rallying in rebellion to God, whilst God in heaven simply laughs, saying he has installed his King in Zion, who will rule the nations – he will break them with rod of iron and dash them to pieces like pottery.

The overall picture we get as we read Revelation 19 and 20 in light of these passages is of that final day – the day when God’s anointed King appears to judge the world with justice and truth. The time of oppression under the rule of idolatrous rulers and institutions is brought to an end, God’s people are vindicated once and for all, and God’s eternal rule of peace and justice is established.

 

Judgement by the Word of Truth

Now in the context of all that, what I think is ultimately highlighted in this passage is that it is the truthof Christ that is the instrument of justice. The rider is called ‘Faithful and True’, and then ‘the Wordof God’. And where is the sword coming from? His mouth. His wordis his power. It is his word which will ultimately condemn the beasts and their followers, even Satan himself, when it is proved true on the final day. It is the sword of his mouth which kills the vast armies of the beast. Satan is portrayed as the great deceiver, and God’s judgement on him is to bind him so that he may no longer deceive – truth wins in the end. And the saints who had been beheaded and now rise to rule with Christ… what did they die for? Their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. They resisted the lie of the beast – the deceit of Satan – proclaiming that Jesus was Lord instead, to the point of death. And so now, through the final judgement of God their word is proved true. They are vindicated and rule with Christ as the truth of Christ is realised once and for all.

All of this is the flip side of gospel we proclaim. Through this present age, the church is pictured in Revelation proclaiming the truth of Christ so that the nations might come to repentance and faith and be rescued from the deception of Satan and the beasts. The witness of the church is the hope of the nations. But this same message ends up condemning those who resist. Those who reject the truth will end up being judged by that very truth when it is proved true. That’s what is ultimately being conveyed through these horrific battle scenes. The point is not that there will actually be an epic battle, and swords coming out of mouths, and birds gorging on flesh all day. No, these images simply link us to the dramatic imagery of the prophets, looking forward to the final Day of the Lord. What will happen is that the truth of Christ will be proven true, the saints who held to this truth will be vindicated, and all who rejected, resisted it or opposed it will be condemned by it to perish with their lies. Jesus himself explained during his ministry that, “If anyone hears my words but does not keep them…the very words I have spoken will condemn them at the last day.”

 

Understanding the Millennium

So what’s the deal with the thousand years in all this? If the truth of God has triumphed over Satan and the beasts and all who oppose him, and if the saints have been raised to receive the Kingdom and rule with Christ forever… then why is Satan released after one thousand years?? Why is there another ‘final’ battle? Weren’t all the bad guys destroyed first time round??

 

Traditional Readings…

Well many of you will probably know that the interpretation of the thousand years, or the ‘Millennium’ as it’s often referred to, is one of the most disputed parts of the whole book of Revelation. There are very well-established traditions of interpretation that are connected with the different approaches to the book of Revelation as a whole and broader teachings about what will happen in the end times. There are helpful articles you can read to get more detail, but briefly, the three main traditions are premillennial, postmillennial, and amillennial.

Premillennialism expects Jesus to return to a world of sin and rebellion beforeestablishing the millennium rule of Christ and his people. Postmillenialism expects Jesus to return to earth aftera golden age of the church in history, where the Spirit brings people from all nations to respond to the gospel. And Amillennialism rejects the idea that the millennium is a literal, future period of time, but rather sees it as a symbolic reference to the age of the church as a whole, where Satan is ‘bound’ in a sense through the death and resurrection of Jesus (you can read fuller descriptions in the notes below).[1]

But which one is right? Well first of all, your decision about this is about more than how you read this passage alone. It will reflect how you read Revelation and indeed large parts of the Bible. And I think of these three options, amillennialism makes the most sense and is usually connected with a much more sensitive and sensible reading of Revelation, and indeed the bible as a whole. A major factor for me is that it seems to fit much better with what Jesus says about his return to earth being a sudden, cosmic event that brings history to a close and ushers in his Kingdom.

So I’ve assumed for most of my adult life that amillennialism is the correct reading of this particular passage. However, I’m not convinced that the thousand years refers to the age of the church anymore. It has a lot going for it, but it has problems, and I think there is a better reading.

Having read and reflected over the last few days, I believe traditional amillennialism is mistaken to equate the thousand years with this age, as it doesn’t fit the way the rest of the book of Revelation describes it. The book of Revelation typically describes the age of the church as a time of persecution under the deception of the devil (the dragon) and the oppression of the beast, and it is consistently described symbolically as a period of three and a half years – a limitedtime. Three and a half is half of seven, the number of completeness or perfection in Revelation – it depicts a time cut short. In chapter 11, the two witnesses (who represent the church in this age) are to prophesy for 1,260 days, which is roughly 3.5 years. In chapter 12, the woman who gives birth to the child who will rule the world, is taken off to be protected in the wilderness from the rage of the dragon for 1,260 days, which is later described as ‘time, times and half a time.’ During this time, chapter 13 describes the dragon summoning the beasts to wage war against God’s people. For 42 months (i.e. 3.5 years) the beast is given authority and power to conquer the saints and oppress them and commands the worship of all the inhabitants of the earth. And during this age, the second beast ‘deceives the inhabitants of the earth’ and coerces them into worshipping the first beast.

In contrast to this reality, this three and a half years of deception and oppression, Revelation 20 describes one thousand yearsof everything being reversed: Satan is bound, unable to deceive, the beasts are destroyed, and the saints are alive and ruling with Christ in glory. We tend to see the thousand years as a limitedtime, focusing on it coming to an end, rather than seeing it for what it is – an incomprehensibly long time compared with three and a half years!

The contrast between this age and the millennium described in Chapter 20 is also reinforced when you note that in Chapter 6 the Christian martyrs are referred to in exactly the same way as in chapter 20. John sees ‘under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained’. But whereas in Chapter 20 John sees them vindicated and brought to life to reign, in chapter 6 he hears them cry out, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Their time for vindication – their time to reign! – has not yet come, and they are told to wait a little longer.

 

A Better Reading…

So I think there is a better reading of this passage. A reading which I believe makes better sense of the context and the nature of the passage. This reading, which could be called ‘symbolic amillennialism’, is best articulated by the NT scholar named Richard Bauckham in his book, The Theology of the Book of Revelation. You see the problem with all three of the traditional readings, even amillennialism, is that they assume that the thousand years and the battle scenes must be describing to some degree or another a sequence of actual events in history. However the book of Revelation has constantly presented us with dramatic imagery and terrifying scenes that we’ve seen are not making predictions about particular events or figures. Rather they communicate powerful truths about the present or the future. They are like dramatic visual parables designed to show God’s people the way things really are – to reveal the truth about this world, what’s really going on. They reveal the truth about the struggle they are engaged in against their own sin and sinful human institutions. They reveal who is ultimately in charge and who will win. The most sensible thing is to understand the vision of the millennium to function in the same way.

Bauckham explains that “The millennium becomes incomprehensible once we take the image literally. But there is no more need to take it literally than to suppose that the sequences of judgments (the seal-openings, the trumpets, the bowls) are literal predictions… John expected the martyrs to be vindicated, but the millennium depicts the meaning, rather than predicting the manner of their vindication.

So Bauckham argues that this passage is notultimately teaching us that Christ and his people will reign for some long-but-limited period of time, which will come to an end with Satan actually being released to wreak havoc amongst the nations before his final destruction. Rather it is a vision of that very sequence of events happening for the purposeof emphasising that nothing, absolutely nothing, can or will overthrow the final vindication of God’s people over and against Satan and his minions. Not even Satan himself marching on God’s people with an army like the sand on the seashore. The thousand years then refers simply to the long-awaited Kingdom of God – promised in the OT prophets, glimpsed through the ministry of Jesus, guaranteed through his death and resurrection, proclaimed through the church, and finally to be established once and for all at the end of time when Christ returns to judge and to save.

But why introduce the idea of a thousand-year reign at all? Isn’t it a bit of a confusing way to make the point? Why not just have the dragon thrown into the lake with the beasts and be done with it?? Well it seems that this vision of John’s is tapping into expectations of other Apocalyptic literature of the time, which all looked forward to some kind of temporary, transitional kingdom of the Messiah on earth, prior to the full establishment of the Kingdom of God in eternity. The predictions ranged from 400 years to one thousand, seven thousand or an indefinite time. But instead of John’s vision simply affirming some version of these expectations (which are not clearly present in the biblical prophets), it takes the concept and uses it to make the point that the Kingdom of God and the vindication of his people cannotand will not be overthrown.

So the whole of our passage, and through to 21:8 is really a single vision of the end– the triumph of the truth of God against the deceit of Satan and the oppression of the beast. It is a glimpse of the final judgement of God, which promises the glorious, complete and undeniable future vindication of God’s people who hold on the truth in the present, come what may.

 

Truth Wins

So we’re not naïve to hope for justice are we? God gave this vision to John, and he passed it on to the churches as a prophetic letter, urging us to live faithfully, holding onto the truth and proclaiming it against the lies of every deceptive human ruler, institution and ideology. John sees that a day is coming – most definitely coming – when the truth and justice of Christ will triumph over the lies and intimidation of human arrogance and idolatry, and ultimately the deception of Satan himself.

 

This is the day that hangs over this world, either like a bright light – a beacon of hope – or like a terrible darkness, depending of course on whom we have believed and followed – Jesus, or the beast? John explains that it is those who had not worshipped the beast, and who resisted receiving the mark of the beast, who came to life and reigned with Christ.

The warning is loud and clear, isn’t it, for those of us who are found to be following the beast. Whether it’s outright rejection of God’s claim on your life, or an unthinking compliance with the ways of this world, or perhaps even a shallow, hypocritical form of Christianity which really just compromises with the demands of culture at every turn… the clear message of Revelation 19 and 20 is that the final outcome of this path is judgement and condemnation to death by the very word you have failed to heed.

But those who do faithfully hold on to the word of Christ, who live and die by it, will ultimately be vindicated. Their sacrifices for following him and not compromising with the sinful practices of this world, their apparent weakness and foolishness in the face of whatever human ideology is being espoused at the time – it will all be shown to be the right choice. You will be vindicated once and for all, and nothing can take it away.

 

The word of Christ will be proved true, and the world will be transformed as a result. So keep going, keep trusting for that day to come. We who hope in Christ are given this vision so that our weary souls might be strengthened, so that our disillusioned hearts might be lifted up, so that our we might have the courage to keep proclaiming that Jesus alone is Lord and saviour of this world.

[1]Premillennialismunderstands that Christ will return beforeestablishing a millennial reign on earth. There are variations about the details, and particularly how it relates to predictions of great tribulation leading up the end times. A particular form of this is very popular in American evangelicalism, which believes that Christ will return initially to ‘rapture’ out all Christians from the world, which will then experience 7 years of great tribulation, after which Christ will return, destroy his enemies ala Revelation 19, and usher in the millennium reign. This view is bound up in quite literalistic reading of Revelation as a whole, and has essentially appeared on the scene at the beginning of the 20thCentury thanks to a very popular study bible that spread the peculiar view of a minister named John Darby far and wide. Dispensationalversions hold that many OT prophecies are waiting to be literally applied to the earthly, political nation of Israel during the millennium, rather than seeing their fulfilment in and through Jesus and the gospel.

 

Postmillennialismexpects Jesus to return afterthe millennium. The thousand years, sometimes taken literally, sometimes as a symbolic reference to a long time, is seen as fulfilled in the final stages of history as the church experiences a golden age of success through the Spirit in proclaiming the gospel and winning converts. Thus Jesus returns essentially to a world waiting for him to usher in the new age of eternity. This view was developed in the late middle ages and gained popularity with some early reformers, and especially during the great revivals of the 18thCentury in England and America. The horrors of the 20thCentury seemed to undermine this optimistic spirit however, and it’s less popular today.

 

Amillennialismrejects the idea that the millennium is a literal, future period of time, but rather sees it as a symbolic reference to the age of the church. Amillennialists argue that the death and resurrection of Christ was the great event that bound Satan, limiting his ability to deceive as the church proclaims the truth of the gospel, and those who die for the gospel reign with Christ now in heaven. It became the dominant view through Augustine from the 4thCentury onwards and remains the dominant view for many commentators.

 

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