I’ve been reading through Revelation recently, and have at last reached the glorious words of the start of Revelation 21. But to get to there you have to go through some tough and bizarre passages. Revelation 12 tells of a dragon, Revelation 13 of two beasts. Bowls of God’s wrath follow as judgement ravages the earth. Finally comes a vision of a woman, a city, Babylon, who rides on the beast, drunk on the blood of the saints. These lurid visions are followed by chapter 18 where there is a call to rejoice over the fall of Babylon.
It sounds harsh – rejoicing over the fall of human beings. But Revelation 17-18 tell us of the seriousness of the sin of Babylon. Of the wealth and riches built on human trafficking. Of the blood of the saints spilt in that city. For John’s 1st century readers Babylon would surely be Rome. For us it is any system of human government and economics conducted without reference to God. It is any system which bows to the beast of human power, or to the beast of false religion. It is any system which oppresses those made in the image of God.
These systems are literally beastly. We don’t have to look far in our land to see the results of abandoning God. To see the rise in cruelty, the desire for ever more enjoyment now. We don’t have to look far to see this coupled with false religion which makes it all about our best lives now. All of that is part of the beastly kingdoms. The beast can look dangerous and frightening like a crazed dictator bent on wiping out the church. The beast can look harmless and comfortable like our western wealth built on the oppression and poverty of others.
It is the fall of such beastly systems that we rejoice over. The fall of all who oppose God and his plan of redemption, his plan of rescue, his plan of making the world right and new. There is a judgement day coming John tells us through his Revelation, and at its bottom that is fundamentally good news. It is hard for us to hear because humanity as a whole has chosen rebellion against God’s purposes, and needs to turn back to the living God. But there is no other way for God to save his world and his people except through the judgement of those who oppose him. What the beastly visions of Revelation do is give us the correct glasses, the correct lenses through which to see the world in focus and realise the horror of what opposition to God means. It is literally de-humanising, of self and of others.
The fall of Babylon is followed in John’s vision by a vision of the last battle – John’s vision isn’t always consecutive – sometimes we see the same thing from several angles, or through several images (a good simple guide to this is Michael Wilcox’s The Message of Revelation in the Bible Speaks Today IVP series, or at greater length from a similar angle “Discipleship on the Edge”, a series of sermons by Darrel Johnson – Regent College Publishing). The last battle has all earth’s armies gathered to oppose the white rider (not Gandalf, obviously). There is no lurid account of an actual battle being fought – the rider, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, wins the battle by the sharp two edged sword from his mouth. Think Hebrews 4:12 and 2 Thessalonians 2:8 and it is obvious.
Jesus wins the battle simply by speaking. As he calmed the storm from the boat, so one day he will speak and every storm will be stilled. Every opponent crushed. Every wrong righted. John goes on to describe the day of judgement when the books are opened, and every deed is laid bare. All the dead raised to be judged. The sea, death and Hades (equivalent to Sheol in the OT, the place where souls were believed to go after death) give up their dead, and all are judged. Then the sea, death and hades are all thrown into the lake of fire. The sea here is not a nice place to go for a holiday. It is a place of chaos and turmoil, a place of risk and a place of likely disaster. A place of monsters. A place that claims lives. It needs to go for God’s new creation to come.
And we dare not miss that also destined for this lake of fire are those whose names are not in the Lamb’s book of life – those who are marked with the mark of the beast – those who have not bowed the knee to Jesus as Lord. Willing submission is needed to Jesus. CS Lewis put it something like this “There are only two groups of people: those who say to God ‘your will be done’, and those to whom God says ‘your will be done'”. Those who refuse to bow the knee to the King cannot be subjects in his kingdom, and are shut out for ever. (A good place to go to read more on thinking through the issues this raises is “The Great Divorce” by CS Lewis – I don’t think the book is intended to be read as Lewis’ final word on the subject, rather it is useful thought experiment to read with Bible in hand and brain engaged – rather in the way of approaching any book – or blog post – really!)
Then at last we reach Revelation 21. We see that there is a new heavens and a new earth. The chaos has gone, and God’s new work begins. That is why there has to be a judgement. And then we see a good city, the right city, the true city. A city bowed to God’s will. A city with human input and glory involved (look at Rev. 21:26), but fundamentally a city that is God’s. A city that is also a bride dressed for her husband. And then in the midst of the picture John sees comes a voice declaring these words.
“Behold, the dwelling place* of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people,* and God himself will be with them as their God.* 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
The word that caught my attention as I read was “with”. God’s dwelling place is with people. He dwells (“tabernacles” – like in John 1:14 where the word became flesh and dwelt among his people) with them. He himself will be with them. He is with us now by his Spirit, but then he will be with us in person and we will see him – Revelation 22:4 – We will see his face.
Stop and think about that for one minute. The face of the creator. The face of the Law giver. The face of the one who, when he came down on Sinai, Israel could not approach, and whose presence was veiled in thick darkness and unapproachable light. Moses was only allowed a glimpse of the back of God’s glory because “no one can see my face and live”. And yet we will see his face and live forever.
This God of all glory and splendour and majesty will wipe away every tear from every eye. I set up the church for two funerals this week. The second was for an elderly great grandmother who died secure in Jesus’ love and knowing where she was heading. I was almost undone during the tributes read from her grandchildren. I had noticed her year of birth, and realised that, had she not died of cancer my own grandmother would have been the same age. At the age of 17 I thought she was old when she died. At the age of 39 I realise how long she could have lived. She could have seen our children, could have been at family gatherings with great grandchildren gathered round. Death once more seemed so unfair. And yet reading Revelation 21 I remembered my reaction when I realised she was going to die. I remember reading these final chapters of Revelation with my sister. I remember highlighting chunks of these chapters and knowing that she would be with Jesus. That is the peace. That is the assurance that these verses give. Death is not the end.
One day all of us who have trusted in Jesus will stand before his throne and see his face. And he will wipe away every tear. Death itself will be no more. No more crying or mourning or pain. The first things have passed away. God makes it all new. The day that all creation longs for with eager expectation. It caught me afresh this morning. This is reality. We live in a world saturated with self and saturated with instant pleasures. A world that promises much, but delivers little. Reality is set out in the images and pictures of Revelation, and in the words of the one who is seated on the throne. We need to listen. And we need, and I need, to re-orientate our lives around the reality that Jesus is coming back. Around the reality that “we will see his face, and never never sin, and from the rivers of his grace drink endless pleasures in” (Isaac Watts).
The first hymn at the funeral on Thursday was a wonderful reminder of how the one who stilled the storm with a word will one still every storm:
Be still, my soul: the Lord is on thy side.
Bear patiently the cross of grief or pain.
Leave to thy God to order and provide;
In every change, He faithful will remain.
Be still, my soul: thy best, thy heavenly Friend
Through thorny ways leads to a joyful end.
Be still, my soul: thy God doth undertake
To guide the future, as He has the past.
Thy hope, thy confidence let nothing shake;
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul: the waves and winds still know
His voice Who ruled them while He dwelt below.
Be still, my soul: when dearest friends depart,
And all is darkened in the vale of tears,
Then shalt thou better know His love, His heart,
Who comes to soothe thy sorrow and thy fears.
Be still, my soul: thy Jesus can repay
From His own fullness all He takes away.
Be still, my soul: the hour is hastening on
When we shall be forever with the Lord.
When disappointment, grief and fear are gone,
Sorrow forgot, love’s purest joys restored.
Be still, my soul: when change and tears are past
All safe and blessèd we shall meet at last.
(Katharina Amalia Dorothea von Schlegel)