The Day is Coming!

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

Revelation 20:11-21:8

 

Judgement Day: Far Better and Worse…

I remember when I was a young teenager, I had this idea that on the final day, when everyone had to face up to God, it would basically be a massive public shaming exercise. Somehow, probably from some overzealous Sunday school teacher, I had this idea that on judgement day God would show a movie of all the bad stuff in my life for everyone to see – all the bad, shameful, naughty things I had ever done would run like a terrible, verylong, cringy movie on a massive screen for all of humanity (but especially my grandparents!) to see.

Now aside from the logistical problems that this would create… I mean, just imagine having to watch this movie for every single human being that has ever lived! The Population Reference Bureau estimates on their website that over 108 billion human beings have been born and walked the earth – racking up good and bad actions to be displayed for this apparent public shaming. I imagine that in reality we spend the bulk of our waking hours contributing to the ‘bad’ record, but lets be generous and say each person’s movie only goes for 2 years. So you’re now standing there (because why would we have seats?) watching the sad, pathetic thoughts and actions of billions and billions of people you don’t know for over 200 billion years… You can see I hadn’t really thought this scenario through until recently.

But aside from these logistical problems, I’m pretty confident judgement day won’t play out like that, because that’s not what judgement day is all about. I was making it all about me – my problems, my shame, my fears. But Judgement Day is about God and his plans for this world. It’s about his plans for justice and his promises to redeem this creation and his people.

Judgement Day is the culmination of the story of the Bible – God’s plan to establish his good and just rule amongst his people and destroy everything that has threatened to destroy his good creation. What I needed to realise is how fit into this picture, not how Judgement Day fits into my world.

You see the great final day when God brings his judgement to bear on the world is much better and much worse than I had ever imagined. My petty fears of embarrassment pale in contrast to the terrible reality of eternal punishment described in Revelation for those who come under God’s judgement. And I had missed the overwhelming goodness of that day – a day when Eden, paradise, is restored, and when God comes to dwell amongst his people bringing life and joy, because sin and evil are removed once and for all.

 

A Day of Fulfilment

So the big idea of our passage in Revelation today is that God’s great plans and promises are coming to fulfilment – finally and completely. All the hopes and warnings of the OT prophets are finally realised in John’s vision for us in this passage. The nation of Israel (or the faithful within it at least!) had maintained the conviction that the LORD God was the true King of this world, and that one day he would turn up to establish his rule – to judge and to save. And what John sees here, in two distinct scenes – the great heavenly throne and final judgement described in 20:11-15, and then the dawning of a new heavens and earth described in 21:1-5, are filled with allusions to two prophets and their message about the end – Daniel and Isaiah. So we’ll look at the first section and the allusions to Daniel, and then consider Isaiah’s vision of a whole new creation.

 

The Judgement of the dead

As we saw last week, Daniel chapter 7 provides us with the great scene of the final judgement which brings the oppressive rule of human kings to an end. Daniel writes,

9   “As I looked, “thrones were set in place,

                  and the Ancient of Days took his seat.

          His clothing was as white as snow;

                      the hair of his head was white like wool.

          His throne was flaming with fire,

                      and its wheels were all ablaze.

10      A river of fire was flowing,

                      coming out from before him.

          Thousands upon thousands attended him;

               ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.

          The court was seated,

                      and the books were opened.

Daniel’s vision is all about God bringing justice and vindication to his people – freeing them from the tyrannical rule of the nations around them. It’s about the establishment of God’s Kingdom and the rule of his people for ever and ever. The rest of Daniel 7, surrounding this vision of the throne room make that very clear. But part of this vision is of course the reality of judgement for allpeople. ‘The court was seated and the books were opened.’ Justice comes through judgement – God bringing all people, great and small, to account.

And so this is what John sees unfolding before him. He sees “a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them.” The image of heaven and earth fleeing from God’s presence, however you imagine that!, underlines the holiness, the awesomeness, the terrifying reality of God Almighty bringing creation under judgement.

Then John sees “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 meaning of the symbolism is clear isn’t it. Again, as with everything John sees and reports to us, we need to remember what is being described is symbolic – like a visual parable. God doesn’t have actual paper books in heaven that he will refer to on the day of judgement. The image communicates the basic reality that God knows everything and will hold us to account for what we have actually done.

The Bible declares that each and every human being, no matter how powerful or insignificant we are in this life, will face the judgement seat of God after we die. Physical death is no escape from God and the life we have lived. No one gets away with anything in the end. As John goes on to describe, “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 they had done.” There is no hiding place. The sea, that great realm of chaos according to Jewish belief, and death and Hades – the place of the dead – are pictured as giving up the dead in them so that God might judge each as they deserve.

And the outcome of this judgement is confronting to say the least. In verse 15, we read that ‘anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire’ – the ‘second death’. This other book – the book of life – is presented as the only source of hope in the face of being held accountable for your actions. This book is also called the Lamb’s book of life in Revelation, and it is clear that having your name in this book is fundamentally a question of your relationship to Jesus. Only those whose names are in this book – only those who are trusting, faithful followers of Jesus – survive the judgement. Everyone else is condemned to eternal, spiritual death, pictured throughout this vision symbolically as a lake of fire. We need to remember that the lake of fire is a symbol. It’s a representation of something we don’t quite understand rather than a literal description of what is to come. But it’s a symbol that communicates a true and horrific reality.

Now we’re going to come back to the question of how the two books relate, and whether followers of Jesus, as those who dohave their name in the book of life, are in fact judged according to what they’ve done or not. But for now, we really need to pause and acknowledge the enormity of what this passage is saying to us. Each of us will have to give an account of our lives to God, and if our name is not found in the book of life, if we have not come to a point of repenting of our sin and trusting in Jesus as Lord and Saviour, of devoting ourselves to him as his followers – the only outcome we can expect is eternal condemnation.

This passage is saying quite simply, if you have not sought refuge from the coming wrath in the shelter of Jesus, you will face it on your own and you will suffer eternally as a result. This is the basic teaching of the bible, that we all fall short of God’s glory and holy standard – that each of us ultimately deserve condemnation from God. If you stand before the judgement seat of God trusting in your own merits, it will not be a good outcome.

Have you seriously considered this reality? Have you faced the stark words of Revelation 20 and considered your own fate? Or are you ignoring it? Assuming you simply don’t need to worry about such ‘fire and brimstone’ messages, that we’ve moved on from that stuff now…? Well God hasn’t. God is determined to hold us to account. He is determined to judge sin and rid his creation of all evil. And if you or I attempt to stand before the judgement seat of God on our own merits, we will be caught up in this judgement.

And it’s really important that we remember that this is the context of the bible’s message about judgement and salvation in Christ. You see some people think this idea that God will judge and condemn us unless we trust in Jesus is a petty idea, like God unnecessarily interrupting a perfectly happy world to get angry at people for not liking him.

This picture is a sarcastic meme shared on atheistic websites, which I can appreciate is pretty funny from their point of view. Jesus knocks on the door, the person inside asks ‘who’s there?’, It’s Jesus, let me in…Why? I have to save you.From what? From what I’m gonna do to you if you don’t let me in!

Now, it’s really more than a silly joke. It’s a significant critique of the Christian message. ‘Salvation’ is portrayed as an unnecessary joke. The only reason we need ‘salvation’ by Jesus is because he wants us to like him and he’s coming to harass us if we don’t let him in! But they can only joke about salvation because they joke about the reality of judgement. The real picture of salvation and judgement that we’ve seen in Revelation and in the rest of the Bible is that our Creator is coming to establish justice – to deal once and for all with a seriously messed up world that needs God’s good and just intervention. And if we don’t find refuge in Jesus, we will be swept aside in that justice because the truth is that we arepart of the problem.

This is why we are always going on about the mercy of God shown in the cross of Christ. This is why Christians sing songs like ‘Rock of Ages’ more than two hundred years after they were first written – praying, pleading, proclaiming the truth of these words:

Rock of Ages cleft for me, Let me hide myself in Thee
Let the water and the blood, From Thy wounded side which flowed, Be of sin the double cure, Cleanse me from its guilt and pow’r

Not the labor of my hands, Can fulfill Thy law’s demands
Could my zeal no respite know, Could my tears forever flow
All for sin could not atone, You must save and You alone

Nothing in my hand I bring, Simply to the cross I cling
Naked come to You for dress, Helpless look to You for grace, Stained by sin, to you I cry; Wash me Savior or I die

While I draw this fleeting breath, When mine eyes shall close in death, When I soar through realms unknown
And bow before Thy judgment throne, Hide me then, my refuge be, Rock of Ages cleft for me.

God’s judgement is coming, and our only hope for refuge is in Christ, crucified for you and I. This is what John sees first of all. This great reality facing all of us – the judgement of God on all the living and the dead – and the terrible consequence for those not found in the book of life.

 

The death of Death

But what John also sees as part of this scene, which really paves the way for what is to come, is that death itself is cast into the lake of fire. Death is killed off from God’s creation – confined to hell where it belongs. And so the last enemy of God is destroyed, as the Apostle Paul puts it in his letter to the Corinthians. Death and Hades share the same fate as the sin and evil which have caused it.

And so with all that has corrupted God’s good world and opposed his purposes in it destroyed and removed, John now sees ‘a new heaven and a new earth’, for the first heaven and earth had passed away. Before his eyes he catches a glimpse of what the prophet Isaiah had begun to dream of – a whole new creation, a new order of reality, free from suffering, death and sin. It is particularly the last few chapters of Isaiah’s book of prophecy, chapters 65 and 66 that introduce us to this language and these kinds of expectations.

In 65:17, God declares through his prophet,

17    “See, I will create, new heavens and a new earth.

          The former things will not be remembered,

                      nor will they come to mind.

18      But be glad and rejoice forever in what I will create,

          for I will create Jerusalem to be a delight

                      and its people a joy.

19      I will rejoice over Jerusalem

                      and take delight in my people;

          the sound of weeping and of crying

                      will be heard in it no more.

God’s purposes to restore his people, to create his good rule in this world, to bring justice and peace, to dwell personally amongst us… ultimately it becomes clear that these purposes require a renewing of creation itself – a purging of death and corruption – so that heaven might come to earth. And that’s basically what we see through John’s vision – heaven itself comes to earth. The Holy City, the new Jerusalem, comes down out of heavenfrom God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.

And the critical significance of this is that God’s dwelling place is now among the people. God is finally dwelling personally and directly with his people. The symbols of temples and tabernacles have given way to the reality; the prayer of faith to the invisible God gives way to the experience of the actual presence of God. The shadow of the earthly, man-made city of Jerusalem gives way to this vision of the New Jerusalem, the heavenly city where God and humanity dwells together. They are his people, he is their God – he will be with them.

And in the context of this vision of God’s covenant promises being realised comes one of the most beautiful lines in the bible, again a line picked up from the prophet Isaiah – “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning of crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” Who can imagine a more profound and intimate reality than the Creator and Judge of the universe personally wiping away the tears from your eyes. That’s the language necessary to capture the sheer goodness and delight of what is dawning in John’s vision. This is our future! This is what God is and has been working towards in this world. This is the final purpose of the terrible judgement he brings on sin. This is the reason he gave his one and only Son over to death for us: so that he might dwell amongst us, pure and free from sin, wiping away every tear, wiping away the memory of death itself in a new creation. This is what we are looking forward to.

 

Assurance and Victory

Then finally as part of his vision of the dawning of the new creation, John hears the one seated on the throne speaking. He hears him say two things essentially. First he underlines the certaintyof these things, and then he invites us to claimthem and enjoy them as his children by being victorious rather than share the fate of those coming under his judgement.

So firstly, in verses 5 and 6, John hears the one seated on the throne underscoring that he ismaking everything new. It is done. It will happen, you can count on it. He speaks as the Alpha and the Omega – the Beginning and the End. The one making these promises is the source of all life and the end of all history. He decides what happens and this is going to happen, and he says these words are trustworthy and true. Write them down, pass them on, live by them.

Andthen secondly, the one on the throne calls us to embracethese things – to come and drink deeply of his blessings. “To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life.” Come and drink, come and claim and enjoy your inheritance as my children, calls God. And it’s here in this invitation that he explains that it is those who are victorious that will inherit all this; the victoriouswill be his children and enjoy the promise of the new creation. And in contrast to the victorious are listed all those caught up in the sin of this world – those who instead share in the fate of sin and death itself – they are consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur.

 

The call to conquer, to be victorious, is fundamental to the book of Revelation. Each of the seven messages at the beginning of the book culminates in a promise to the one who is victorious. ‘To the one who is victorious I will give the right to eat from the tree of life in the paradise of God; the one who is victorious will not be hurt at all by the second death; the victorious will be given some of the hidden manna, they will share in the authority of Christ over the nations – sitting on his throne with him, they will be dressed in white and their name will never be blotted out of the book of life, they will be a pillar of God in the temple of God, belonging to the new Jerusalem…’ These promises are picked up and reinforced in this final statement – it is only through being victorious that the members of the churches John is writing to can enter into the New Jerusalem and inherit life in the new creation.

And what does it mean to conquer? To be victorious? It’s to resist the beast and the deception of Satan and instead maintain your witness to Jesus, faithfully living by his Word, even to the point of death. Victory is resisting the lure of sin, idolatry and compromise presented to us through the powers and culture of this world, come what may. The saints portrayed in the book of Revelation are victorious over the beast of the Roman empire as they endure death rather than worship him or participate in his sin.

And it’s this picture of victory over the beast which actually helps us understand the vision of the two books of judgement in the previous section, because there is an inseparable connection between the two. In chapter 13, where John sees the great struggle unfolding between the beast and the people of God, he explains that ‘All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast—all whose names have notbeen written in the Lamb’sbookof life.’ Throughout the book, people’s actions seem to be determined by, or perhaps reflect, whether their name is written in the lamb’s book of life. All those who do not have their name written in the book of life worship the beast, receive the mark of the beast, and marvel at the beast. Their actions towards the beast are an expression of the fact that their names are notin the book. And the opposite is equally true. If your name isin the book, you are victorious – you resist the beast. These two realities really explain each other.

And so we see that our actions by which we are judged are ultimately an expression of this deeper reality – whether our name is written in the Lamb’s book of life; whether we have come to repentance and faith in Jesus as our Lord and Saviour, our Lion and our Lamb. We are judged by what we have done – but this is ultimately an expression of whether we belong to Jesus or not. Our actions matter, because our actions express our faith – or our lack of faith.

 

So the challenge is clear isn’t it? Know what’s coming and live in light of it. Know who you are and who you belong to – know where your name is written! – and be victorious. Know what is at stake as you struggle against the lure of greed and idolatry in this world. Know that faithfulness matters! Just as John’s first readers were tempted to trivialize the idolatry of the Roman Imperial Cult for the sake of just fitting in and getting on with life, so we today are tempted to trivialize the idolatry of career and sexual fulfilment.

We are tempted to compromise on the Bible’s teaching when it comes to sexual ethics, or ignore what it says about wealth. We are tempted to go with the flow of economic and social policies that only serve to protect the lifestyle and wealth of the privileged. We are tempted to modify the exclusive claims of Jesus for the sake of sounding more tolerant and reasonable in our pluralistic society. And the message of Jesus to the churches through Revelation is that faithfulness matters. Maintaining our witness to Jesus according to his Word of Truth matters. We don’t earn our salvation through obedience – we don’t show that we actually deserveeternal life before the judgement seat of Christ by our inherent goodness. But we reveal that our name really is written in the Lamb’s book of life. That’s who we are and that’s our future.

 

The Day is Coming

So hopefully our vision of the greatness of the final Day has grown larger as we’ve explored Revelation 20 and 21. It’s certainly bigger, greater, far better and far more terrifying than I had imagined as a young teenager. Judgement day is not primarily about me or you. It’s the fulfilment of God’s promise to restore justice to his creation. It’s the fulfilment of his promise to renew, to recreate this world free from sin, suffering and death, and to make his dwelling amongst us. It’s the promise of God wiping away the tears from our eyes as the memory of injustice and death fades away. And it’s an invitation to wait faithfully for that day – to live in hope of a good and certain future.