Mission Impossible?

Series: Behold, A Throne

Sermon by David Strain on Sep 25, 2016

Revelation 11

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Take a copy of the Scriptures in your hands; turn with me to the book of Revelation chapter 11 on page 1034, of our church Bibles. As we continue in our ongoing studies in the book of Revelation we come tonight to one of the most complicated and difficult sections in an already complicated and difficult book. And so before we read the passage, let me remind you of some basic rules of interpretation that will help us as we get into this important material.

First of all, the book of Revelation piles up symbols and metaphors, one on top of the other, to communicate multi-faceted truth. We need, therefore, to be careful to read it symbolically. As one writer puts it, Revelation is concerned with symbols, and not statistics. So even the numbers, as we will see, is symbolic and metaphorical. Secondly, Revelation, remember, covers the whole period between Christ’s resurrection and His return, over and over again, so that we see the same period of time variously described with different aspects of life for the people of God brought to the fore each time. Thirdly remember that the overall design of the book of Revelation is not to give us a detailed, literal roadmap to the future of global geopolitics. So we ought not to turn on the television news one day and expect to hear reports about two strange prophetic figures who can breathe fire stalking the streets of Jerusalem.

No, the point of the book of Revelation is to offer real comfort and encouragement to the Christians in John’s own day, to whom He wrote, and in every age of the church since that day as we seek to be faithful to Jesus in a hostile and unbelieving environment. And then finally, as we’ve already begun to see, Revelation is steeped in images drawn largely from the Old Testament Scriptures. John piles them up, sometimes even blending them together, so that the book is almost a compilation, a repurposing of a string of Scriptural metaphors. John, you see, is a Bible man. And if we read Revelation correctly, it will push us to be Bible men and women too. The best guide to understanding the book of Revelation is not the newspapers or the latest reports from CNN or Fox News. The best guide to the book is the Bible itself. And if we keep those principles in mind, even though we have come to a particularly complex section of the book, we ought not to be intimidated, but in fact, we will be deeply encouraged by all that God has for us.

Now you will remember that John is watching seven angles blow seven trumpets and with each trumpet blast another one of God’s judicial rebukes and gracious warnings for a world lost in sin sounds out among us. Last time we considered the first six trumpet blasts and we saw that beginning in chapter 10, there’s a kind of pause, an interlude between the sixth and the seventh trumpet that runs, if you’ll look at it, all the way through to verse 15 of chapter 11. And tonight we’re picking up the material in the second half of that interlude in chapter 11 beginning at verse 1 and we’ll read through to the end of the chapter. So if you haven’t done so now, take your Bibles and turn to Revelation chapter 11, page 1034 in our church Bibles. Before we read it, would you bow your heads with me as we pray!

Lord, Your Word is oftentimes complex, oftentimes challenging. It stretches us and demands our attention and our reflection and our thought. And as we come to one such portion of Scripture tonight, we pray for the ministry of the Holy Spirit who inspired it to illuminate our understanding that we may behold great and rich truth for the encouragement and comfort of our hearts that we may be enabled by Your Word to live more for Your glory than we do already. For we ask it in Jesus’ name, amen.

Revelation chapter 11 at the first verse. This is the Word of Almighty God:

“Then I was given a measuring rod like a staff, and I was told, ‘Rise and measure the temple of God and the altar and those who worship there but do not measure the court outside the temple; leave that out, for it is given over to the nations, and they will trample the holy city for forty-two months. And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth.’

 

These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. And if anyone would harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes. If anyone would harm them, this is how he is doomed to be killed. They have the power to shut the sky, that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire. And when they have finished their testimony, the beast that rises from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them, and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days some from the peoples and tribes and languages and nations will gaze at their dead bodies and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb, and those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them and make merry and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to those who dwell on the earth. But after the three and a half days, a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood upon their feet, and great fear fell on those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, ‘Come up here!’ And they went up to heaven in a cloud, and their enemies watched them. And at that hour there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.

 

The second woe has passed; behold, the third woe is soon to come.

 

Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.’ And the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying,

 

‘We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was, for you have taken your great power and begun to reign. The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.’

 

Then God's temple in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen within his temple. There were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and heavy hail.”

Amen, and we praise God that He has spoken in His holy, inerrant Word.

“Can’t!” When we say that word we are generally concluding defeat, aren’t we? Sometimes that’s the path of wisdom of course. We need to know our limits, not try to do more than we can do. On the other hand, “I can’t do it,” or “It can’t be done,” may have less to do with our ability or capacity and more to do with our fear; a defeatist attitude. Perhaps past experiences of prior failures. Sometimes the difference between success and failure is actually nothing more than the word, “can’t.” And there are times when faced with the mission given to it by Jesus Christ to bring the Gospel to the whole world, the Church has said or been tempted to say, “Can’t. It can’t be done. We can’t do it!” Part of the agenda behind the book of Revelation is to make sure we stop responding to the call of Jesus Christ with that word, “can’t.” And one of the ways that it does that is by showing us the Church suffering, serving, and celebrating. The Church protected, preaching, and praising. It shows us ourselves in mission, going about our Master’s business. It shows us the opposition we will face clearly, unshrinkingly. And it shows us the victory that certainly lies ahead. So that if I can borrow a phrase without you thinking that I am endorsing a political party platform, ok, instead of “can’t,” we say to the call of Jesus Christ instead, “By your grace, the Holy Spirit helping us, yes we can! Yes, we can!”

And that is the special goal, actually, of the chapter now before us. There are three images of the Church here. I just mentioned them to you. The Church suffering, the Church serving, and the Church celebrating. Or if you prefer, the Church protected, proclaiming, and praising. Look at the text with me.

The Church Protected

First of all, in verses 1 and 2, the Church protected. If you’ll recall from last time, at the end of chapter 10 John is asked to eat a scroll, in the language and imagery, echoing the experience of the prophet Ezekiel. And the same thing is continuing here. Like Ezekiel in the fortieth chapter of his prophecy who saw the temple being measured, so John now likewise is to measure the temple. Some read this as a literal, physical temple that is yet to be reconstructed in Jerusalem one day and so they interpret this whole chapter as a reference to literal events taking place on the streets of modern Israel’s capital city. Now I think that completely misunderstands the point of the text and ignores the symbol-laden nature of the apocalyptic literature that we are dealing with. No, in keeping with the emphasis of the New Testament as a whole, the temple here in these opening verses is emblematic of the Church of Jesus Christ. 1 Corinthians chapter 3 verse 16, “Do you now know? You are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells within you.” So John is to measure the temple, that is, the Church.

But he’s not to measure the outer courts of the temple, verse 2. It is given over to the nations. They will trample the holy city for forty-two months. The temple is to be measured, the Church, but outside the nations trample the holy city. The measuring here is a way of saying God takes full inventory of His people so that none of them will be lost. Not a stone missing from the spiritual house that God is building as He fits us together, living stones one to another, built on the Lord Jesus Christ, the chosen and precious chief cornerstone. The nations will rage and trample, even the outer courts of the temple, John says, as well as the holy city. He wants us to see the Church will suffer at the hands of the unbelieving world but for the people of God, “neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.” You have been measured, logged, counted and known, cherished and beloved, and you will be protected and preserved; kept by the power of God unto salvation ready to be revealed at the last time. There’s protection here.

The Church Proclaiming

But then secondly, there’s also proclamation here. The nations trampled the temple, John says, for forty-two months. And into that context of a world on the rampage against the Church, Jesus sends His two witnesses. And they’re given authority to do ministry for 1,260 days. That’s the same, do the math, that’s the same as forty-two months or three-and-a-half years. Isn’t it? It’s a number that actually appears again and again throughout the Scriptures. So let me give you a quick survey. Numbers 33, for example, there were forty-two encampments in Israel’s journey through the wilderness. And the wilderness theme will be picked up later in chapter 12, although as we’ll see even in our chapter, Moses’ ministry in the exodus is being directly echoed here too. Likewise, according to Luke chapter 4 at verse 25, there were three-and-a-half years during the ministry of Elijah when it did not rain. And Elijah’s ministry, as we’ll see, is also going to be echoed in our passage. The same number appears twice in the book of Daniel. Daniel 7:25, when it refers to a period of time in which a beast opposes God and His people. And Daniel 12:7, when a figure with his hand raised to heaven like the angel at the end of Revelation chapter 10, tells Daniel that the end will come after time, times, and half a time. That is, after three-and-a-half years.

And if you’ll turn forward in the book of Revelation itself to chapter 12 at verse 5, there’s another image as we’ll see next time for the Church – the image of a woman in the wilderness pursued by this Satanic dragon for 1,260 days; three-and-a-half years; forty-two months. And in 13 verse 5, the beast, this anti-Christ figure, deceives the world for forty-two months, 1,260 days, or three-and-a-half years. Over and over again in Scripture, that period of time is used to describe a season of trial in the life of the people of God. In this case, and especially in light of the references in Daniel and later in Revelation, the three-and-a-half years is actually a symbol for the whole period between the resurrection and the return of Jesus Christ. It’s three-and-a-half years because it is half the perfect number. The suffering will be real but not complete, not total.

The Two Witnesses

And into that period of trial and suffering and persecution between the empty tomb and the final return, Jesus sends these two witnesses. You see that in verse 3. And here’s another image of the Church. There are two witnesses because that is the legal requirement for valid testimony. And like John himself, back in chapter 10 these two witnesses are sent to prophesy throughout this period of time. Why has God then protected the Church in verses 1 and 2? He protects us so that we may proclaim Him. He keeps us safe that, like these two witnesses, He might send us out. The suffering Church may not use its suffering to avoid its calling to also be a serving Church.

Key Old Testament Images

And look at verses 4 to 6 with me. Notice carefully the three key Old Testament images that John uses to tell us about the identity and mission of these witnesses. First, he says they are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord. In the background, there is Zechariah chapter 4. The beleaguered people of God had returned from exile to a broken-down temple in Jerusalem and they were tasked with its reconstruction, it’s rebuilding. And Zechariah is sent to encourage them by portraying their leaders, Zerubbabel and Joshua, like olive trees whose constant supply of oil keeps the single lampstand of God’s people burning brightly. The lampstand is a metaphor for the people of God. Jesus, in Revelation chapter 1, walks, you will remember, “among the lampstands.” That is, He walks among the Church. The lampstands are an image of the Church, but John adjusts Zechariah’s vision. Did you see that? The two olive trees in John’s vision are the same thing as the two lampstands. The two witnesses are the two olive trees; they are the two lampstands. In other words, the two witnesses are the Church, sustained and supplied, by the ready supply of the Spirit of God to bear bright, unceasing witness to Jesus Christ in a dark world.

The Ministry of Elijah

And then look at verses 5 and 6, and the second key Old Testament image. This time, John takes us to two incidents from the ministry of the prophet, Elijah. As the Church bears witness, he says, if anyone attempts to harm the witnesses, “fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes.” Echoing an incident that took place in Elijah’s ministry, 2 Kings chapter 1. Elijah was challenged by three groups of fifty soldiers and he told them, “If I am a man of God, then let fire come down from heaven and consume you and your fifty.” And three times the fire of God consumed his adversaries. That’s the first reference to Elijah’s ministry.

Then in the first part of verse 6, there’s another echo of Elijah’s ministry. You will remember how he prayed to God and God shut the heavens for forty-two months so that there was no rain. The two witnesses in our text have the power to do the same. Like Elijah in Israel, the Church witnesses to Christ under the protection of the power of God. That’s the point. Although we may yet suffer, yet the mighty power of God nevertheless attends the ministry of His Word. So that James 5:17, ought to be a great encouragement to us as we seek to fulfill the mission Christ has given to us. James 5:17, “Elijah was a man with a like nature as ours and he prayed fervently that it might not rain. And for three years and six months, it did not rain on the earth.” And so we need to remember as we go about the mission Christ has given us, that the prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working. God will defend His people, answer their prayers by His mighty power.

The Ministry of Moses

The third image from the Old Testament drives that point home even further in the second half of verse 6. Do you see it? They have power over the waters to turn them into blood and to smite the earth with every plague. Now who does that remind you of? This time, the reference is to the ministry of Moses who held up Aaron’s rod and the Nile turned to blood and who told pharaoh of the plagues that God would bring if he did not repent. And the cumulative force of these three images is really designed simply to remind us that during the days of the Church’s witness, the 1,260 days of the period between Christ’s first and final return, first coming and final return, God will vindicate His Word and He will defend His people and He will overcome His enemies. Perhaps you remember Shorter Catechism 26. “How doth Christ execute the office of a king?” “Christ executeth the office of a king in subduing us to himself, in ruling and defending us, and in restraining and conquering all his and our enemies.” We need to take hold of these precious truths more than we do, don’t you think? Christ will rule and defend us. He will restrain and conquer all His and our enemies. We have a calling to go and bear witness. We must proclaim Christ to the world – across the street and around the world. Sometimes there will be hardships involved. The nations will trample the holy city and sometimes maybe even make us cry, “Can’t. Can’t do it. Can’t be done.” But in our text, we are being reminded that we can do all things through Him who gives us the strength.

The Beast

But lest we swing from fear and timidity on the one extreme all the way to a naïve triumphalism – Christ will defend us and so we can be triumphalistic and naïve about it – look at verses 7 to 10. No sooner are we shown the mighty power of God that will support and does support the Church’s witness making us bold to go in Jesus’ name than we’re also shown the real enemy animating the reaction of the nations to our preaching. At this point, John introduces us to a character – this is one of John’s patterns, you know. He often introduces something earlier in the book and comes back to it more fully later. He introduces us here to a character he will elaborate on in chapter 13. Do you see him? He is the beast; the anti-Christ figure whose forces have always opposed the Church and its testimony to Jesus. He is permitted, notice, to kill the two witnesses. Their bodies are shown every indignity – left unburied for three-and-a-half days in the streets of a city symbolically called Sodom and Egypt where our Lord was crucified. It’s Jerusalem, later on, its Babylon. This is every city; this is a human society living in rebellion and depravity in opposition to the reign of Jesus Christ. And the world rejoices at the apparent end of the Church, doesn’t it? It’s troublesome, conscience-pricking, distasteful message about Jesus that had so tormented them.

And from time to time in various places and at different moments across history, the Church seems to have been extinguished and its witness silenced. Think of the mass expulsion of missionaries from China at the rise of communism. It looked like the fledgling Church at that moment had been destroyed. Decades later when adjustments to those restrictions allowed western missions some access to China, they found to their stunning amazement that in fact, the Church had exploded in revival power. Or think of the persecution of believers in contemporary Iran. To evangelize in Iran is punishable by death and yet there is an unprecedented turning of Iranians to Jesus Christ taking place right now. The witness of the Church is often snuffed out, it’s servants martyred or silenced, and yet look at verse 11. “After three-and-a-half days a breath of God entered them and they stood up on their feet and great fear fell on those who saw them.”

God does give seasons of revival to His moribund Church by His Spirit. Don’t we need that so very much in our day as the opposition of our culture grows more and more openly hostile and the legal and social and economic factors all align to make Christianity not just a minority opinion but a persecuted one? What do we need to complete the mission under such circumstances? Don’t we need a breath from God? “O breath of life, come sweeping through us. Revive Your Church with life and power. O breath of life, come cleanse, renew us, and fit Your Church to meet this hour.” That needs to be our prayer, don’t you think?

The End the Church’s Witness

And then at the end of this period of the Church’s witness, will you notice in verse 12, they are called up to heaven. “A voice says, ‘Come up here,’ and they’re taken up in glory in a cloud, into glory in a cloud, while” – now notice this – “while their enemies watch them!” Let me say this clearly in the hope that I won’t have to repeat it. Verse 12, makes it plain, doesn’t it? There will be no secret rapture of the Church! Their enemies watch them as they went up to heaven in the clouds. And at that moment, the final cataclysm begins. Many die in the earthquake that heralds the end of all things and those who remain, we’re told in verse 13, “are filled with terror” and are forced at last to confess, perhaps through gritted teeth, that Jesus Christ is Lord after all, to the glory of God the Father.

Now we’ve just spanned the entire history of our world from AD 30 to the conclusion of time. And what are we called to do during that time? Mission impossible? No, we are called to bear witness, confident in the power and defense of our God, supported and upheld by the breath of life, the Spirit of Christ, by whom He subdues and conquers all His and our enemies, animating and giving us life even when the forces of anti-Christ for a short season may seem to triumph.

The Church Praising

So there’s protection here and there’s proclamation here and finally, there’s praise. Look briefly with me at verses 15 to 19. The angel who talked with John at the end of chapter 10 took an oath, you will remember, and swore that with the sounding of the last of the seven trumpets, “the mystery of God would be fulfilled.” That last trumpet now sounds in the remainder of chapter 11 and it gives us a picture, actually, of the very same moment we just considered in verses 12 to 14. In 12 to 14, we watched the end of the Church’s earthly witness and its departure to glory and the commencement of judgment on the world. In 15 to 19, we see the same moment from the vantage point of heaven. The seventh angel sounds its trumpet and a voice cries, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ and he shall reign forever and ever.” We’re back in the throne room, aren’t we, of chapters 4 and 5. Here again are the twenty-four elder around the throne and once again they fall down and worship.

I’m not sure I need to say much to comment on their song. All we really need to do is picture the scene in heaven’s throne room when the final trumpet sounds and the Church’s work on earth is, at last, complete and the saints are caught up in glory in the air together with Christ as every eye beholds His majesty. Here they come now, bursting into heaven in celebration, and the elders take up the song. Look at it. “We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was. For you have taken your great power and begun to reign. The nations raged but your wrath came and the time for the dead to be judged and for rewarding of your servants, the prophets and saints and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.” And as they sing, verse 19, heaven is opened and the judgment begins.

What a day that shall be. What a day! That’s the last of the three woes that John said would come. Not a woe for the Church, to be sure, but a woe for the unbelieving world. For us, who believe in the Lord Jesus, it will be the climax of praise, the final victory come at last. But let me ask if it will be the final woe for you. When the trumpet sounds, will you think to yourself, “At last? At last, my wearisome labor in Jesus’ name is finished. At last, my long, sore, combat with sin is ended. At last, I need no longer run my race with perseverance because now comes the finish line and the crown of glory. At last, I need no longer walk by faith. Now I see Him face to face. Here comes my Savior now, splitting the clouds in majesty, come at last to take me home.” Will that be your response when the last trumpet sounds? Or when you hear that trumpet will it signal the greatest shock of your life and the beginning of an eternity of bitterest regret?

“Can’t” ought never to be heard in response to the commission Jesus gives us to go bear witness to the ends of the earth. Yes, it’s going to be costly and hard, but He has measured us. That is, He has taken complete inventory and of all those whom the Father has given to His Son, the Lord Jesus, none are lost. The power of Christ the King to conquer all His and our enemies attends our witness and although the Church may suffer a three-and-a-half days’ death, the breath of life, again and again, gives us life. And then think of this. As we labor in all the challenges of ministry and witness in these days, think of this. Keep this before your eyes. What a celebration awaits, at the end of it all, when the work is done. On that day, the kingdom of the world shall become indeed the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ and He shall reign forever and ever and we shall enter into the fullness of joy in His perfect victory. Don’t ever say, “Can’t. Can’t be done. I can’t do it,” to the call and mission of King Jesus when such resources and such promises are ours and the victory is assured.

Let’s pray together!

O Lord our God, how we bless You that You take us in our feeble, weak, struggling condition and You put us by the Scriptures into the context of a cosmic design that You are working out, moving all things to their appointed end, til the new heavens and the new earth reverberate with the glory of Your perfect triumph. And thank You that You make use of weak, feeble instruments like us in the advancement of that grand design. Would You help us not to lose sight of it, not to be cowed by the strutting and posturing of a hostile world? To remember that, “Some of you they will kill and some of you they will put out of the synagogue,” and yet the promise stands, “Not a hair on your head will be harmed.” That is to say, we are kept by the power of God unto salvation ready to be revealed at the last time. In the strength Your assuring promises give us, would You help us never to say, “Can’t. Can’t do it. Can’t be done,” when You call us, but to go in simple, humble obedience and to open our mouths to speak of Jesus. For we ask it in Your name, amen.

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