If you read the passage above silently, go back and read it again out loud, blessing yourself and anyone else in hearing distance (Yes, I am going to mention that every week! – Revelation 1:3).
What an incredible journey through Revelation this has been!
Finally in chapter 10 it is declared that God’s rescue has begun. But John left us hanging with a question, “What exactly is our role in this great rescue plan?” and “What is so sour about this message John has been given to share?”
Chapter 11 answers both of these questions and puts itself at the absolute heart of John’s message about dealing with the pain and suffering that life brings our way.
It opens with John being instructed to measure the temple of God – the first part of the prophetic message he is given to share. Immediately our minds should jump to Ezekiel and Zechariah, who both measured the temple as a prophetic picture of God’s imminent coming through Jesus. Here, John’s measuring is prophetically pointing to the same picture of God’s coming, but the “where” is different. By the time John is writing Revelation, Christianity had a firm understanding that we, his people, are the temple of God. This first picture John is prophesying about is that God is going to fill his people, you and me.
But for what purpose?
We get a hint of it as John tells us that the Gentiles will trample the city, a picture of the pagan powers bringing suffering and harm to Christians. Then, almost without stopping, John goes on to tell a parable involving two “witnesses” who get killed and resurrected. It is one of the most puzzling bits of writing in all of Revelation, which is fitting for the profound and powerful truth that it is revealing.
John makes it clear that these two “witnesses” represent the church as he describes them as the two olive trees (taken from Zechariah 4) and the two lampstands (end of Revelation 1) which are both pictures of God’s people. Why two? Possibly because of the attention John wants to draw to how similar the church’s prophetic acts will be to Elijah and Moses. He says that the witnesses will have the power to stop rain (Elijah in 1 Kings 17-18) and bring plagues (Moses in Exodus 7-11) – an inspiring statement that our witness as a church will not just be in words, but will carry powerful and miraculous signs with it as well.
This is where it is important to remember that Revelation is not a chronological list of all that is going to happen one day, but instead is pointing us towards kingdom principles using word pictures.
The witnesses are killed by the “beast” in the “great city” – two characters that are going to appear a lot in the coming chapters of Revelation, but this is John’s first mention of them, without much explanation! We will learn that the beast represents pagan empires and powers, particularly the Roman Empire, and the great city is Rome, where that power has its seat of governance. They are laughed at and mocked, but then miraculously raised from the dead and ascended to heaven like Christ in Acts chapter 1.
At that moment an “earthquake” occurs, which is Revelation’s way of saying that something important has just happened and we should take notice of it. First John tells us that 1/10 of the city is destroyed, a city that he has already described as Sodom. Back in Genesis 18 Jesus tells Abraham he is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah, but promises to relent if 10 righteous people are found. Those ten righteous people aren’t found, but God still rescues Lot and his family. In Genesis a tenth are saved, while the rest are destroyed. Here in Revelation we have a switch, a tenth is destroyed and the rest is saved.
The same point is made again through a different story. This time John says that 7,000 people are killed in this earthquake. Remember back to Elijah in 1 Kings 19 and how God confirms to Elijah that although many prophets have been killed by Jezebel, he has protected 7,000. In Revelation John says it is only 7,000 that are lost, and the rest are saved.
The point of all of this is to show that in God’s rescue plan, his predominant characteristic is mercy! I am not trying to teach some sort of universalism where all people who have ever lived are eternally rescued and restored. But it is worth noting that John is trying to get us to realise that God’s mercy is much greater than you and I could comprehend or imagine.
John finishes with telling us that all the survivors give glory to God. Look back at chapter 8 and 9 and how John told us that God’s wrath, an awareness of our own wickedness, and even military power are not strong enough to turn our hearts and lives. But now, hearts and lives have turned. How?
The answer is in the witnesses and their suffering. The “sour” part of John’s message is that he is telling these early Christians that God’s kingdom on earth is not about escaping or running away from pain and suffering, it is actually the means by which God is going to build his kingdom! The most powerful force that exists, that can change hearts and lives, is the power that God has given his Gospel when it is shared during times of suffering. The church’s witness through suffering, not prosperity, is what God uses to rescue the world and mankind.
Are you ready for that?
We all enjoy singing and praying for God’s kingdom to be built, for it to come here on earth as it is in heaven. Every time we make that our prayer and our desire, we are not inviting God to save us from suffering and pain, but instead to use it to transform the hearts and lives of the people around us as we share his Gospel message. John’s invitation in Revelation is for these Christians to embrace their suffering, and look for opportunities to tell people about Jesus through it, instead of trying to find the quickest way out.
This is hard for us in the western world. Everything about our culture and lives screams of the avoidance of pain and the minimalizing of difficult times. Perhaps that is part of the reason why the church is not flourishing here like it is in other parts of the world. If we want to see God’s kingdom grow in that family member, or neighbour, or community that we care about so much; we need to let God use the pain in our lives (which comes just because that is the way this still broken world is) to transform their hearts and lives by focusing on the Gospel instead of ourselves.
So, is life hurting for you right now? Life hurts for all of us, there is no message in Scripture of how to avoid it, and certainly not here in Revelation. But there is a promise that God can use it to do immeasurably more than you could possibly ever ask or imagine. Who can you “witness” to this week, share of what you are seeing God do in the midst of your suffering and what you are confident that he has already done through Christ? It could be the turning point in their life that changes everything, and maybe yours too.
This is a continuation of our series on Revelation at Birchfield Church. So if you want to listen to my talks (and others as we go along), please feel free to visit our website here and do that. Also, Tom Wright’s book, “Revelation for Everyone”, has been a big help in understanding this book; so go and buy it now and then read it.
Grace and peace to you all.