The 7th Seal: Revelation 8:1-5

Notes on Revelation Chapter 8, Verses 1-5

8:1 When the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.

The Context

Here we have arrived at the 7th seal. If you recall from our previous study, the seven seals began at the start of chapter 6, with the first four represented by horseman – a visual that was used by Zachariah as well (Zechariah 1:7-17). The first five seals represented the time between Christ’s first coming and His return. As the 6th seal was opened we read that the end had come with a climax of all the horrible afflictions that mankind has had to deal with only in more manifold way.

After the first 6 seals were opened, the destruction became so intense that the question became “who can stand (the Lord’s wrath)?” Chapter 7 was the unequivocal answer to this question: those who are washed in the blood of the Lamb can stand in the midst of the wrath of God because they are covered by the altar of the Lord and His blood. These are Christians – you and me.

Now the author’s aside (or “interlude”) has concluded, and John writes of the breaking of the 7th seal.

The 7th Seal – Silence and Awe

What are we reading here? What is this 7th seal supposed to represent?

The 6th and 7th seals represent the final judgment of God – the day of calamity, the great and awesome day of the Lord. These scenes are the final judgment upon unbelievers for their wickedness and rebellion.

The language in these verses closely parallels other recapitulations of this scene later in the book, especially chapters 11 and 16. In those chapters we’ll see the same fourfold signs of God’s presence coming down to earth in judgment (which we’ll discuss momentarily in more detail). Those chapters’ context is specifically the final judgment, and yet we read a very similar description of events:

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. (Revelation 11:19)

The seventh angel poured out his bowl into the air, and a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, “It is done!” [18] And there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a great earthquake such as there had never been since man was on the earth, so great was that earthquake. (Revelation 16:17-18)

So what we are reading about here in this 7th seal is clearly the final culmination of God’s judgment upon the world.

Interestingly, at first glance, the seal seems void of any substance. For we read that there is silence in heaven for half an hour. But (contra Ladd) this doesn’t mean that the seal is void of substance, rather that the breaking of the seal introduces such awe at the devastation of God’s judgment that no words are uttered.

Beale says:

The main point is the horror of the divine judgment, which has such an awesome effect that no human is able to verbalize a response. However brief the description, this idea of judgment composes the seventh seal.[i]

That the silence lasted about “half an hour” might refer to the seeming suddenness of the final judgment. At a time when no one expected it, the Lord inaugurated the end of days with the coming of Christ, and at a time when no one expects it, Jesus will return in glory and judge the quick and the dead.

The literary tool of describing the judgment of God being accompanied by silence is one used in the OT as well[ii]. For example:

O LORD, let me not be put to shame, for I call upon you; let the wicked be put to shame; let them go silently to Sheol. (Psalm 31:17)

Isaiah re: Babylon:

Sit in silence, and go into darkness, O daughter of the Chaldeans; for you shall no more be called the mistress of kingdoms. (Isaiah 47:5)

Two verses Beale finds very relevant are:

But the LORD is in his holy temple; let all the earth keep silence before him.” (Habakkuk 2:20)

Be silent, all flesh, before the LORD, for he has roused himself from his holy dwelling. (Zechariah 2:13)

Lastly, commentators do not mention this, but perhaps it would be appropriate to mention that Jesus Christ, who took our judgment upon Himself, did so in silence:

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth. (Isaiah 53:7)

Therefore, one might appropriately say that this silence speaks for itself.

8:2 Then I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and seven trumpets were given to them. [3] And another angel came and stood at the altar with a golden censer, and he was given much incense to offer with the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, [4] and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel. [5] Then the angel took the censer and filled it with fire from the altar and threw it on the earth, and there were peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning, and an earthquake. (Revelation 8:1-5)

A Few Notes about the Text

There are one or two bullet points that I want to mention before I get into the body of this passage.

  1. In verse 2 we read that the seven angels are given the 7 trumpets of God. This is a way of introducing the trumpet judgments, which we will read about shortly, it whets the appetite for the next vision. It may seem a bit disjointed, but its something that happens in other areas of Revelation as well I believe.
  2. Some folks get hung up on the intermediary role of angels here. But remember that Angels have served in these kinds of roles throughout scripture. They are messengers and warriors and do God’s bidding. They are not offering up the prayers on our behalf of their own initiative, for we read that they are “given” the incense. The prayers have been offered to God have met His approval and are now being burned as an aroma before Him.

O.T. Background

Like so much of the book of Revelation, the Old Testament imagery used here adds a depth and a richness to the narrative that otherwise unknown would leave us to speculation and conjecture.

In this particular passage, it would seem that these verses bring to mind a lot of what we read in Ezekiel 9 and 10. In Ezekiel 10:1-7 we read about an angelic figure who is given coals from before the throne – a safe assumption is they come from the altar as these coals in chapter 8 do. The coals are then spread over the city of Jerusalem in judgment. What is so interesting about this is that this vision of Ezekiel’s takes place immediately following chapter nine’s description of slaying all the unfaithful who did not have the mark of the Lord on their foreheads. In that chapter we read:

And the LORD said to him, “Pass through the city, through Jerusalem, and put a mark on the foreheads of the men who sigh and groan over all the abominations that are committed in it.” [5] And to the others he said in my hearing, “Pass through the city after him, and strike. Your eye shall not spare, and you shall show no pity. [6] Kill old men outright, young men and maidens, little children and women, but touch no one on whom is the mark. And begin at my sanctuary.” So they began with the elders who were before the house. (Ezekiel 9:4-6)

This is extremely similar to what we just studied in Revelation 7 where all those who are spared from the final judgment of God are those who are “sealed” by the Lord. It is also similar to the picture of divine protection that we find in the book of Exodus when the angel of death passed over the Israelites who put the blood of a spotless lamb on their door lentils. This blood prefigured the blood which would be shed by the spotless Lamb of God, the Lord Jesus Christ (John 1:29, 36).

Additionally, we see in the rumblings, lightning, thunder, and earthquakes even more OT imagery. G.K. Beale says, “This fourfold chain of cosmic disturbance has a precedent in the OT, where it also refers to divine judgment.”[iii] Some of the relevant verses are as follows:

On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. [17] Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. [18] Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. [19] And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. (Exodus 19:16-19 ESV)

The Psalmist recounts these times:

When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid; indeed, the deep trembled. [17] The clouds poured out water; the skies gave forth thunder; your arrows flashed on every side. [18] The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lighted up the world; the earth trembled and shook. [19] Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters; yet your footprints were unseen. [20] You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron. (Psalm 77:16-20)

Isaiah uses these same descriptors to explain the nature of God’s judging presence:

But the multitude of your foreign foes shall be like small dust, and the multitude of the ruthless like passing chaff. And in an instant, suddenly, [6] you will be visited by the LORD of hosts with thunder and with earthquake and great noise, with whirlwind and tempest, and the flame of a devouring fire. (Isaiah 29:5-6)

Nature simply cannot contain the glory of the Lord. It is as if nature itself melts before Him when He descends in His glory. And should we be surprised that the One whose words create land and water and lions and birds and human beings out of nothing, causes that same creation to quake when a glimpse of His glory is let loose upon it?

What do we make of this? I think we must acknowledge that the Lord is powerful. He is a God who is unparalleled in glory and power. All other gods are pretenders to the throne.

The Prayer of the Saints

One of the most striking things about verses 2-5 are the prayers of the saints and their role in igniting the fiery coals of judgment which are poured on the earth. These prayers are likely those which we read about in the fifth seal:

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. [10] They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” [11] Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been. (Revelation 6:9-11)

Jim Hamilton rightly points out that the cry of “How long O Lord?” has been going up to the heavens for thousands of years. “How long until the suffering ends? How long until God shows his glory and puts those who mock him to shame?”[iv]

Hamilton points out this sentiment reverberates throughout the Psalms:

Psalm 4:2: How long will the wicked dishonor the Messiah and love what is worthless and seek lies?

Psalm 6:1-3: how long until we’re healed and no longer do things that provoke God’s wrath?

Psalm 13:1, 2: how long will it seem like God has forgotten us and is hiding his face while the enemy exalts over us?

Psalm 35:17: how long will the Lord look on before he delivers?

Psalm 62:3: how long will the righteous be attacked?

Psalm 74:10: how long will the enemies of God scoff and revile his name?[v]

And on and on and on…

These verses are meant to ensure us that eventually the glory of the Lord will descend, and His people will be caught up to Him, and judgment will commence on all who despise His name. In that day, we recall from chapter 7:

“Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. [16] They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. [17] For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” (Revelation 7:15-17) 

Conclusion and Application

What we read here is a depiction of the end of the world. There are three things to be taken away from this:

  1. 1. In His majestic holiness, God will come to judge all of the earth. Those who are not protected by the seal of the Lord will be slain and cast into outer darkness. There is a penalty for refusing to accept the Lordship of God and of His Christ. Many might verbally say that they “believe” in God, but yet live lives of rebellion from His authority. They openly rebel again the Lord who causes nature to melt before Him, in an act of cosmic treason[vi], for which they will be liable.
  2. The prayers of God’s saints serve as the catalyst for inaugurating the final judgment. These prayers are not cries for revenge, but are primarily concerned for justice, and especially for the reputation of God and of His Son, Jesus. They are prayers in response to the pain caused by sin, and the death and destruction it has wrought in the lives of the saints, and the world we inhabit.
  3. All of the sealed, the 144,000, the “great multitude”, will be saved to the uttermost. As Beale says, “The seal is what enables them to enter before the divine throne and to swell there forever.”[vii] Therefore the people of God will be protected by the great sacrificial crosswork of the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. And for this we rejoice and have reason for joy in our hearts even now before the consummation of God’s work.

As I studied this passage, I was struck by the great protection we have in the Lord – He truly is our “fortress.” For in the words of the Psalmist:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. [2] Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea, [3] though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah [4] There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High. [5] God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns. [6] The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts. [7] The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah (Psalm 46:1-7)

 

Footnotes

[i] Beale, from the longer commentary, Pg. 447. He goes on to make the point that the silence doesn’t therefore need to be filled with content from the 7 trumpets. It struck me that Hamilton is sort of saying that the trumpets are introduced by the silence of the 7th seal, but he doesn’t seem to commit to that view which Beale is arguing against.

[ii] Consequently, Jewish literature is full of very similar quotations, per Beale – see the longer commentary, pages 448-450.

[iii] Beale, Longer Commentary, Pg. 458.

[iv] Hamilton, Revelation, Pg. 197.

[v] This compilation is from Hamilton’s commentary, Pg. 197.

[vi] Of course it is R.C. Sproul who first coined this term “cosmic treason” for all sinners who rebel against the Lord God. The term especially conjures the fact that those who are unbelievers are effectively in open rebellion against God. One need only think of pop culture icons to receive a good example of this. Billy Joel’s old song ‘My Life’ provides a nice example: “I don’t care what you say this is my life! Go ahead with your own life, leave me alone!”

[vii] Beale, Longer Commentary, Pg. 460.

Revelation 7 and the 144,000

Revelation Chapter 7 (Interlude)

Introduction

I will borrow from several parts of Beale’s introduction because I have found it helpful for showing how chapter 6 and 7 tie together:

Revelation 7:1-8 explains how believers are sealed so that they can persevere through the first four tribulations (he is referring to the four horsemen) enumerated in chapter 6. The vision of 7:9-17 reveals the heavenly reward for those who do persevere. It amplifies the brief picture of the saints in 6:9-11, who have finally entered into God’s presence, after having successfully completed their course of suffering (see esp. 7:13-15). 7:9-17 also describes the kind of rest that the exalted saint were told to enjoy (6:11)…Saints who suffer in the tribulation are encouraged to persevere as they reflect on the divine protection they have through God’s sealing them and as they recall the promise of their future heavenly reward.

Therefore, the sealing of the saints explains further how Christ will “keep them from the hour of trial” which is “to test the earth-dwellers” who have persecuted them (cf. 6:10). All these connections concern matters that precede the final judgment and reward, so chapter 7 must function as an interlude or parenthesis in its placement after chapter 6. Yet the chapter also has a future aspect, especially toward the end (vv. 15-17). From this perspective the chapter is also an answer to the concluding question of 6:17, “who is able to stand”: before God and not suffer the wrath of the last judgment? This is the definite answer to 6:17 and the main point toward which the visionary narrative of 7:9ff drives.[i]

Hamilton rightly says that, “This chapter is important because we will see later in 9:4 that those who are sealed will not be harmed, and we see in 14:1-5 that this group stands with Jesus, redeemed, on Mount Zion. The fact that God seals his servants also informs the number of the beast in 13:16-18, which seems to be a satanic imitation of God’s sealing of his servants.”[ii]

7:1 After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, that no wind might blow on earth or sea or against any tree.

There are obviously no “corners” to the earth – Columbus helped us figure that one out some time ago – and just as obvious is the fact that God knew it all along! But the meaning here is a simple literary device to mean that the reach of the power of the angels was worldwide.

What are they holding back? The “four winds”, which I tend to believe equate with the four horsemen from chapter 6. For in Zechariah 6 they are equated as the same thing:

And the angel answered and said to me, “These are going out to the four winds of heaven, after presenting themselves before the Lord of all the earth.[iii] (Zechariah 6:5)

Beale explains:

This identification becomes clearer from understanding that the sealing of believers in vv 3-8 explains how they can be protected spiritually from the woes of the four horsemen, which they must endure. Therefore, the identification of the winds with the horsemen means that the sealing of believers in vv 2-8 takes us back even before the time when the four horsemen of 6:1-8 are unleashed.[iv]

7:2-3 Then I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, with the seal of the living God, and he called with a loud voice to the four angels who had been given power to harm earth and sea, [3] saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees, until we have sealed the servants of our God on their foreheads.”

The Seal and the Passover

The seal of God here is the mark of ownership and of protection that indicates that you are God’s own possession and that your salvation has been secured. A brilliant picture of this occurred prior to the Exodus when God instructed Moses to adorn the lentils of Jewish homes in Goshen with the blood of a lamb so that the Angel of Death would know to pass over those homes in the midst of a devastating night-time slaughter of the first born of all Egypt. That night, thousands of years prior to John’s vision, an entire generation was taken away by the Sovereign of all life.

And it is those plagues – the 10 plagues that wracked Egypt prior to the Exodus – that serve as one of the main OT backdrops of the first four seal judgments (the four horsemen), but especially come to mind in the Trumpet and Bowl judgments in the coming chapters. They are modeled after those plagues, and are meant to serve as a reminder of God’s power and sovereignty, as well as His plan for anti-typical fulfillment of a final exodus from sin, death, and a fallen world; He will lead His people to a new land.

Now, the seal is the opposite of the mark of the beast. The mark of the beast is just another way of saying you are a child of the enemy, as opposed to a child of God.

It is a harsh reality that we must come to grips with that all those who are not children of God are, in Biblical terms, categorized as children of Satan, because they are under His control. This reality goes back to Genesis 3:15 where the seed of the Woman was to battle it out with the seed of the Serpent. It didn’t take long before the first battle commenced – Able was the first physical casualty in a war that would stretch for thousands of years. Jesus taught this dichotomy clearly:

They answered him, “Abraham is our father.” Jesus said to them, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, [40] but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did. [41] You are doing the works your father did.” They said to him, “We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.” [42] Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. [43] Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. [44] You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. [45] But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. [46] Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? [47] Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (John 8:39-47).

Paul emphasized this as well:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins [2] in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—[3] among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind (Ephesians 2:1-3).

It is only through the grace of God that one is saved from the enemy camp. Indeed, Jesus came to make enemies His friends:

Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. [10] For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life (Romans 5:9-10).

And this seal is that which indicates that we have been snatched from the enemy camp, and are in the army of God’s glorious elect. It is also an indication of protection from all the evil plagues I mentioned were about to befall mankind. Not protection from difficulty, or struggles in this life. The Israelites were spared death, but yet they endured many of the plagues the Egyptians endured, and then wandered in the wilderness and had a tough go of it for many years before being granted entrance into the Promised Land. So too are we protected ultimately.

Beale explains this well I think:

The nature of this protection is spiritual. This is apparent from the fact that believers and unbelievers suffer similar physical afflictions. But, whereas these trials purify God’s servants, they harden the ungodly in their response to God (so 9:19-21). The seal is closely related to the salvation of the people who bear it. This is evident from 14:1-4, where the group that has “written on their foreheads” the names of Christ and the Father (vs1) is also said to be redemptively “purchased.”[v]

Now, more poignantly, the seal is especially that which protects us from what Revelation refers to as “the second death.”

The sealing of the elect is the answer to the question posed in 6:17, “who is able to standin the great day of the Lord’s judgment. Well, the answer is that the elect are able to stand because God has sealed them. Tom Schreiner sums up nicely:

Those whose names are written in the book of life are enrolled because the Lamb has been slain on their behalf (Rev. 13:8; 21:27). The 144,000 are sealed (Rev. 7:1-8) only because they belong to the Lamb. His death is the source of their life. The sing a new song of salvation and have the name of the Father and the Lamb on their foreheads because they have been redeemed by the Lamb (Rev. 14:1-5).[vi]

A Reminder of the OT Imagery

In this way we can see the importance once again of knowing our Old Testament. I’ve said again and again in class how these OT images and stories would have been automatically conjured up in the minds of 1st century believers hearing John’s symbolic descriptions. Their minds would work with OT imagery the same way ours works when we hear the words “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.” Immediately we think: Star Wars! And all the stories and characters flood to mind in milliseconds. The same is true for the original readers of John’s letter. Therefore, we much be extra studious to understand their minds, and seek to know the OT backdrop which colors the words of this book.

7:4-8 And I heard the number of the sealed, 144,000, sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: [5] 12,000 from the tribe of Judah were sealed, 12,000 from the tribe of Reuben, 12,000 from the tribe of Gad, [6] 12,000 from the tribe of Asher, 12,000 from the tribe of Naphtali, 12,000 from the tribe of Manasseh, [7] 12,000 from the tribe of Simeon, 12,000 from the tribe of Levi, 12,000 from the tribe of Issachar, [8] 12,000 from the tribe of Zebulun, 12,000 from the tribe of Joseph, 12,000 from the tribe of Benjamin were sealed.

There are four general theories[vii] of who makes up this group of 144,000.

  1. The dispensational view, which takes it literally as 144,000 exact people, they see it as Jewish Christians coming out of the great tribulation. “This is based on the presupposition that John’s language is to be understood literally except where he states explicitly otherwise.”[viii] The issue is that hermeneutically their literalization of the number is incorrect – every number in Revelation is figurative, why would this be different? Also, their view that a rapture of Christians will take place prior to a period of tribulation is further error that compounds the mistake.
  2. Some classic pre-mills view this group as figurative, standing for the Jews who are partially hardened but will be come to faith en masse when Christ comes back (Romans 11:24-26). The issue with this is that the Romans 11 passage talks about salvation en masse, whereas this pass in Rev. 7 has in view a remnant of people. They seem to be conveying two different ideas.
  3. Some see the 144,000 as Jewish and Gentile Christians in the first century who will emerge from the horrors of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. My issue with this is that it doesn’t seem to accord with the context. If chapter 7 is an explanation of chapter 6:1-8, which I believe is evident, then one would have to say that the four horsemen were only corresponding to that destruction which took place in 70 A.D., with the following 5th seal emphasis on Christian martyrdom. However, I’m not sure that historically this has been the emphasis coming out of 70 AD (not that its not possible I suppose). It would either damage the recapitulation hermeneutic more generally, which we have seen manifold evidence for thus far, else it might suppose that all of the trumpets and bowls are referring to that time in 70AD, something that the global nature of their descriptions seem at odds with.  
  4. Lastly, there is the view that the number is figurative and that the group here is “the complete number of God’s people” (so Beale). I believe this is correct because every other number in Revelation is figurative, and because the context of the passage demands this conclusion.[ix]

I believe there is ample evidence to point to the fact that what is being represented here is not simply a special carve out of ethnic Jews, but a figurative description of the church across all time. While futurists believe that this group of people are Jewish believers coming out of a literal 7-year tribulation period after the rapture, not all premillennial futurists agree. Both Mounce and Ladd disagree, saying that the 144,000 is symbolic for the church in the tribulation.[x] That being said, I just don’t see these ideas as working very well, and believe Schreiner, Beale, and Hendriksen to be on the right track here. This is evidenced by the figurative nature of 144,000.

Beale explains the 144,000 number, and generally Hendriksen and others say the same thing:

144,000 is the result of the square of twelve multiplied by one thousand or the multiple of the squares of ten and twelve multiplied by ten. The use of twelve (and perhaps ten) heightens the figurative idea of completeness. The square of twelve may be merely the number of the tribes of Israel multiplied by itself or, more likely, the twelve tribes multiplied by the twelve apostles. Chapter 21 confirms this suggestion, where the names of the twelve tribes and of the twelve apostles form part of the figurative structure of the heavenly city of God, “the new Jerusalem.”[xi]

Hendriksen picks up on this citation of chapter 21 and says, “Entirely in harmony with this representation we read in Revelation 21 that the holy city Jerusalem has twelve gates and twelve foundations. On these twelve gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of the children of Israel. On the twelve foundations were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb (21:9-14). We also ready that the wall is 144 cubits in height (21:17).”[xii]

In other words, the number 144,000 is a number meant to represent something, not specifically count individuals. And that something it represents is “the sealed multitude of…the entire Church militant of the old and new dispensations.”[xiii]

Schreiner helpfully discusses the idea and provides a useful summary snapshot:

Some interpreters, of course, understand the 144,000 as literally referring to Israel. The arguments presented previously (cf. his NT theology chapter 17) suggest that John uses “Israel” symbolically to refer to the new people of God. The twelve tribes of Israel point now to a greater fulfillment: the church of Jesus Christ. The 144,000 is symbolic in that it is twelve squared and multiplied by one thousand. It represents, then, the totality of God’s people and the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham. It also represents God’s army in that it is comparable to the census of Israel s God’s army in the OT. God’s warriors are those who suffer for other sake of the Lamb. The church of Jesus Christ is, then, the true synagogue of God, the place where his people father together. The church does not cancel out ethnic Israel, for the names of the twelve tribes are on the gates of the heavenly city (Rev. 21:12). But the true Israel, composed of both Jews and Gentiles, finds its fulfillment in the church of Jesus Christ.[xiv]

Lost Identity

I sometimes feel obliged to spend more time refuting the dispensational viewpoint because of its odd predominance in our culture at this time in history. So I want to give one more angle on this group of 144,000 as food for thought.

One of the main difficulties with the dispensational viewpoint on this number representing Jewish Christians from literal tribes is that those tribes were completely obliterated during the Assyrian exile. Beale notes that there was still a possibility that some tribal identity existed in the first century A.D. (e.g. Acts 26:7), it seems that many Jews even at this time didn’t have a specific tribal identity. And while dispensationalists like Walvoord argue that God still knows who is from what tribe,[xv] even that argument has two issues

  1. Intermarriage: Of course God knows everything, but what is it that object of His knowledge? Are there some people who have somehow accidentally remained of purely Reuben, or Judah, or Benjamin blood? Assuming God knows the blood lineage of all mankind, it is still highly doubtful that given all the intermarriage in the last 2000+ years that there remain on earth now (or in the future) those who are purely of the blood of one or another of these tribes.
  2. Context: Beale says, “Even if it were viable (and my first point were null), it would have to remain speculation until more evidence from Revelation 7 or elsewhere in the book could be adduced to support it. Instead, the immediate and broad contexts point to a transferal of the tribal names to the church.”[xvi] That broader context could include the noted parallel of chapter 7 with 14:1-4. In those verses the 144,000 are said to be those who are “redeemed from mankind as firstfruits for God” (14:4) – in my mind this draws from NT literature in which we are told the church (James 1:18 perhaps picking up on Jeremiah 2:2-3?) and Christ (1 Cor. 15:20; Col. 1:18) are the firstfruits of God (The church due to the nature of its unity with Christ – see Romans 6-8). That they are redeemed from mankind emphasizes again that they are a remnant, and that they are not simply from Israel, but more globally from “mankind.” We will discuss this more when we come to chapter 14.

An Odd List

Now there are some oddities with the tribal list. First, it is missing the tribe of Dan and also missing Ephraim. Futurists like Walvoord say that this is either because the antichrist will come from Dan, or because these tribes were guilty of idolatry.[xvii] But there is no such biblical evidence to support the former, and the latter could be said of all of the tribes!

Hendriksen says, “To say that the symbol ultimately indicates Israel according to the flesh is wrong. The apostle certainly knew that ten of the twelve tribes had disappeared in Assyria, at least to a great extent; while Judah and Benjamin had lost their national existence when Jerusalem fell, in AD 70. Besides, if Israel according to the flesh were meant, why should Ephraim and Dan be omitted? Surely not all the people in the tribe of Dan were lost.”[xviii]

Of course some of this doubles down on what I already mentioned before, but I believe it’s sometimes helpful to hear it from other sources and perspectives.

Another oddity is that Judah is listed first in the list. In my mind there could be some influence here from Genesis 49 where Jacob blessed his sons and predicted that from the tribe of Judah would come a king – that king, as we now know, was Jesus.[xix]

Hamilton sums up some of these oddities, “…in this list that John gives in Revelation 7:5-8, he leaves out Dan, lists Manasseh but not Ephraim, and lists both Joseph and Levi. So john has twelve tribes listed, but this list doesn’t match the way that the Old Testament generally listed the twelve tribes.”[xx]

Hamilton thinks that perhaps Walvoord is right in saying that the omission of Dan and Ephraim (which was the name also equated with the northern kingdom of Israel) might be due to idolatry. But it is hard to say for sure.

7:9-10 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, [10] and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

Some objections are given by the dispensastionalists that these two groups can’t possibly be the same people. One group is described as coming from every tribe and nation and the other is described with a number and as Israelites. But the similarities outweigh the differences. The second group seems to have emerged from the tribulation because they were sealed (which was something mentioned of the first group). It also seems likely that, “on this understanding, just as John heard that Jesus was a Lion in 5:5 and then “saw” Jesus as a Lamb in 5:6, so also John “heard” the number 144,000 in 7:4 and then saw an innumerable multitude in 7:9.”[xxi]

Therefore, John looks and sees something that previously he only heard. If verses 4-8 are representative of the church from across all time, which I believe these are, then verse 9 is the visible representation of what John heard in verses 4-8. And what an amazing thing he saw!

John sees a vast multitude, a very diverse group of people. They seem to be people represented from all the nations of the earth. Their diversity transcends tongue and ethnicity, and their unity is found in that they all have white robes and palm branches in their hands, and they all cry out with a very loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

7:11-12 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, [12] saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

The angels, and elders and specifically the four living creatures all agree with the words of the church and say “Amen!”

One of the things that came to mind here was how in Isaiah 6 we are told that “one angel called to another”, that is to say that one of the Seraphim cried out in praise to God to another angel, and as if in agreement they all join together crying “holy, holy, holy” – the trisagion, He is three-times holy. And we see something similar here as well where all of God’s creation is joined together in one mind in praise to God. One group praises God, and the other seeks to echo their praise with praises of their own.

If worship is two parts: one presenting one’s body before the Lord (i.e. Romans 12:1-2), and the second presenting one’s praise before the Lord, then this group has both covered. They “fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God” – but it is not an empty worship of body alone. The body is only part of the worship…

Note now the content of what they are saying about God. They acknowledge these things about and to God:

Blessing – He is the origin of all blessing, for “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change” (James 1:17). Therefore it is right to bless God with our tongues for all He has given to us, and for who He is intrinsically, and that is just what they do here.

Glory – Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory we are told (Hebrews 1:1-3), but what is this glory? The glory of God is defined by John Piper as the visible and outward manifestation of His holiness – it is his holiness “gone public.” But what is being said here is that all glory, that is, all praise for goodness, is due to God. He is the only person who deserves “glory” or to be “glorified” in the truest sense of the word.

Wisdom – This is a more complex praise than it might seem at first. Wisdom is by definition a “right use of knowledge”, and we know that Christ was the very embodiment of wisdom, and that God is the keeper of all wisdom. If God was not wise, then all of His knowledge could be used to terribly ineffective or dangerous ends. But He is wise – Paul calls God the “only wise God” (Rom. 16:27) in a similar doxological moment. The idea is that the angels and elders acknowledge that to Him alone belongs wisdom. It is like saying, “God only you know all the ends from the beginning, and only you are the right governor of all history and creation, and we would never want it any other way.”

Thanksgiving – Because of these truths we are to be grateful to God for all He has seen fit to do for us. Psalm 118:1 says, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!”

Honor – Honor is specifically a word that I think fits rightly with kingship. Honor is not simply thanksgiving, or gratitude, it is rather paying respect to one who is due respect. That respect is not due only for what that person does or did, but for who they are. On earth we have a tendency to somewhat begrudgingly honor our authorities because they are in a place above us; God has put them there, thus we honor them. But in heaven honor is due to God because of His own intrinsic person and His authority over all things.

Power/Might – I will treat these two together. Though Power might be thought of as an intrinsic quality, whereas “might” in the Bible (at least in my studies) brings to mind God’s power in action. It is by His “might” that the Israelites were led out of Egypt, and so forth. Often the two ideas are held together – as in Ephesians 6:10, “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength (power) of his might” (insertion mine). I love this because the idea is that God’s power is always used toward the right ends. It is not man’s power, which is used often toward wrong ends. This power of God is ultimate, and it is used in righteousness.

These are the character qualities, the attributes, if you will, that are on the minds and lips of the angels and servants of God. They end the praise by acknowledging the everlasting nature of the kingdom of God and of His person: “be to our God forever and ever!”

7:13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, clothed in white robes, and from where have they come?” [14] I said to him, “Sir, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

The Explanation of the 144,000

And as if you haven’t figured it out already, the question is asked in verse 13 in a manner that reminds me of a teacher looking to his pupil to make sure they are paying attention. “Who are these people, John? Have you figured it out yet?” John punts, and the explanation is forthcoming, they are the ones who have come out of the “great tribulation.” Furthermore, they have “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”

Note that they are coming out of the “great tribulation”, which is to say that they will persevere through all the plagues of the four horsemen who will tear the earth apart until the final judgment of God comes at the return of His Son.

This phrase “great tribulation” is one which the dispensationalists have taken to mean a literal 7 year period of tremendous strife and horror on the earth.

Jim Hamilton, has several pages of solid points refuting this incorrect idea. Let me now read you some of his best excerpts:

Dispensationalist interpreters understand “the great tribulation” to refer to Daniel’s seventieth week (cf. Daniel 9:24-27), the final sever years of human history. I have indicated (in the chapter on Revelation 6-16) that I think Daniel’s seventieth week is the whole period of time between the two comings of Christ. I think this because the New Testament indicates that with the resurrection of Jesus, the last days began.

So the age to come has been inaugurated. The final period of human history, Daniel’s seventieth week, is the whole period between the ascension and the return of Jesus.

This also means that the whole period of time between the ascension and return of Jesus is a period of “tribulation.” Jesus told his disciples in John 16:33, “In the world you will have “tribulation.” Paul told the churches in Acts 14:22, “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.” In Revelation 1:9 John told the churches that he was their “brother and partner in the tribulation.” Jesus said to the church in Smyrna in 2:9, “I know your tribulation,” then told them in 2:10 that they would have tribulation for ten days.

So it seems that the whole period of church history, the time between Jesus’ ascension and return, is a period of tribulation…Right before the end, it does seem that there will be an intense period of persecution at the very end of history. But I think it is a mistake to expect a literal final seven years.

…I think it more likely that John means this as a description of all believers in Jesus. Thus, what John sees and recounts in Revelation is meant to encourage the churches to whom he writes. They are facing tribulation, and John tells them that God seals his servants to preserve them through the tribulation. God makes it so that though they are killed, they will overcome because they will not stop trusting Jesus.[xxii]

Now, the idea of something becoming white by spilling blood on it is nonsensical to the one who interprets these things literalistically. If we were literalists, we would have to say that this is a great mystery and there must be some kind of magic they are using to make their garments white – what are they using? What kind of blood is this anyway that the Lamb has? You may snicker, but you see the point of my hyperbole, do you not? We must interpret that which is metaphor in such a way as we are informed by the context. In the NT the blood of the lamb is said to cleanse us from our sins.

Elsewhere John writes:

But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:7)

The author of Hebrews alludes to this same truth as well:

…how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Hebrews 9:14)

Therefore we must trust that the blood of Christ is that which will cleanse us and shield us from all harm on this earth – it is the blood of His sacrifice which protects our salvation. There seems to be a strong parallel here with 6:9-11. The saints there not only are under the alter (perhaps a symbol of protection from the four horsemen), but they are given white robes (vs. 11) and told to rest a little while longer. So too those here in chapter seven who emerge from the tribulation are given white robes – their garb is the same because they are of the same group, the elect of God.

7:15-17 “Therefore they are before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence. [16] They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. [17] For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

This promises mirrors that which we find in the end of the book as well. It is a wonderful promise that for those who are God’s elect, He will shelter them and bring them to their final resting place, which will be in a land flows with “springs of living water.” Therefore for those who are parched, God will give ultimate satisfaction. What Jesus gives spiritually now in “living water” we will receive physically later.

Lastly, we are told that God will “wipe away every tear from their eyes.” This perhaps is the most wonderful verse in the entire chapter, because it 1. Acknowledges the tear-inducing struggle we face while we walk upon this earth, and 2. It showcases the tender mercy and love of God for His children.

The all-powerful God of heaven and earth understands your pain and struggle. In fact, He ordained these events in order that as you live through the plagues of the horsemen, you might be refined as gold, a choice stone in the city of God, the New Jerusalem. On that day He will heal your hurt and your scars, and mend all the pain that has caused tears to flow.

The Psalmist knew the truth that for those whose God is the Lord, they are ultimately protected from all the evil on this earth:

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. [2] I will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” [3] For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. [4] He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. [5] You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, [6] nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday. [7] A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you. [8] You will only look with your eyes and see the recompense of the wicked. [9] Because you have made the LORD your dwelling place— the Most High, who is my refuge— [10] no evil shall be allowed to befall you, no plague come near your tent. [11] For he will command his angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. [12] On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone. [13] You will tread on the lion and the adder; the young lion and the serpent you will trample underfoot. [14] “Because he holds fast to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. [15] When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble; I will rescue him and honor him. [16] With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.” (Psalm 91)

Footnotes

[i] Beale’s longer commentary, Pg.’s 404-405.

[ii] Hamilton, Pg. 188. He’s really spot on here. And gives a great introduction, part of which includes a wonderful analysis of the main point of the chapter, which is that, “God is able to seal his servants and protect them from all danger, winning praise from them” (pg. 188).

[iii] There is also a background from Jeremiah 49:36 here. That verse says, “And I will bring upon Elam the four winds from the four quarters of heaven. And I will scatter them to all those winds, and there shall be no nation to which those driven out of Elam shall not come.” Beale comments in his footnotes on pg. 407 of his longer commentary, “Standing in the same tradition as Zechariah, and therefore possibly also behind Rev. 7:2-3, is Jer. 49:36, where ‘the four winds’ are divine agents of judgment against a nation.”

[iv] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 406.

[v] Ibid. Pg. 409-410.

[vi] Tom Schreiner, NT Theology, Pg. 429.

[vii] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 416.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] It might be noted that Beale offer’s Bauckham’s view as a 5th alternative, but I don’t see it generally as fitting that way, but rather as an enhanced understanding of point 4. Namely, Bauckham says that the 144,000 represent an army of God’s people. The tribal lists, and the census terminology seems to be taken from the OT, and the parallel with 14:1-4 where the 144,000 is spoken of in militaristic terms, seems to only solidify this impression. Far from a separate view, it is a view that supports the figurative number of 144,000 (something Beale himself sees), but adds a dimension of conquering in the same way that the Lamb conquered (cf . Beale pg. 423) by enduring the suffering of the four horsemen.

[x] Steve Gregg, Pg. 133.

[xi] Ibid. Pg.’s 416-417.

[xii] Hendriksen, Pg. 110-111.

[xiii] Ibid. Pg. 111.

[xiv] Tom Schreiner, NT Theology, Pg. 751.

[xv] See Beale Pg. 415 and Greg Pg. 133.

[xvi] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 419.

[xvii] Steve Gregg’s Commentary, Pg. 133.

[xviii] Hendriksen, Pg. 111.

[xix] Beale rightly remarks, “The priority of Judah here emphasizes the precedence of the messianic king from the tribe of Judah and thus refers to a fulfillment of the prophecy in Gen. 49:8 that the eleven other tribes ‘will bow down to’ Judah.” Beale also says that Ezekiel 34:23-25 further develops this motif of Judah being the head of the tribes (pg. 417). Hendriksen also talks about the priority of Judah in his commentary (Pg. 111).

[xx] Hamilton, Pg. 190.

[xxi] Ibid., Pg. 192.

[xxii] Hamilton, Pg.’s 194-195. I still omitted many good things he had to say. He also talks about how the phrase “great tribulation” does not exclusively refer to a final period of difficulty and then quote Rev. 2:22 and discusses that a bit more.

Revelation 6: The 5th and 6th Seals

Here are my study notes from yesterday morning which covered Revelation 6:9-17, namely the 5th and 6th seals, as well as some more general notes on recapitulation as a literary form in the book.

The Fifth Seal

6:9-11 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.

George Ladd says, “Here John appears to have in mind all Christian martyrs of every age, perhaps those of the end time in particular.” I don’t know that I agree with his futuristic bent, but I do think it accords with all Christians – and not simply those who were physically killed for the name of the Lord, but all those who died in their faith having stood firm against the devil. In other words, for all saints who are identified with the slain lamb.

Beale makes a good case that these men and women are to be identified with all Christians who have died in Christ by pointing to the rewards, which correspond to those in chapters 2-3. Ladd says that in a very real sense we are all called to die to ourselves and put on the Lord Jesus as His followers. Therefore we take up our cross, which is a way of saying that we take up the mantle of suffering which is ours as Christians.

The life of a Christian is often one of suffering. Jesus said this:

Brother will deliver brother over to death, and the father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death, [22] and you will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved. (Matthew 10:21-22)

Later on in Matthew we see that Jesus lays before us the complex idea that in His sending of prophets to the people in the OT, He knew they would be killed and He orchestrated these things in order to lay the case against the wicked:

Therefore I send you prophets and wise men and scribes, some of whom you will kill and crucify, and some you will flog in your synagogues and persecute from town to town, [35] so that on you may come all the righteous blood shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah the son of Barachiah, whom you murdered between the sanctuary and the altar. (Matthew 23:34-35)

What is wrapped up in this saying is the same thing that applies to those in the New Testament and to us today. In the deeds of the righteous and their/our proclamation of the truth of God, we are both God’s instruments of salvation and also His instruments of judgment.[i] Not that we judge anyone, but that God’s words convict the world of His righteousness and their sinfulness. Therefore the gospel acts as a separating fire (Luke 12), which burns up the chaff and refines the gold.

Beale is likely right to note the special NT emphasis due to the “witness” being associated with these men. As someone who has studied John’s gospel I can personally attest to (no pun intended) the importance of the word and concept “witness” in John’s writing. Perhaps a similar emphasis is intended here. If so, that means that the witness these folks “bore” is that of identification with the Lord Jesus.[ii]

6:10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?”

This cry mimics the words in Zechariah 1, which follow the vision of the horseman in that book as well:

Then the angel of the LORD said, ‘O LORD of hosts, how long will you have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which you have been angry these seventy years?’ (Zechariah 1:12)

The idea here is that these saints have been killed by the tribulations of the four horsemen. These are the faithful Christians who have stood for the Word of God throughout the ages, and cry out for the Lord to bring about the final word of justice.

Their appeal is to the character of God. He is the “sovereign Lord” and is both “holy and true” and therefore will not wink at sin.

The appeal is a type of imprecatory prayer upon the earth dwellers who have persecuted Christians, and rebelled against the sovereignty of God. They seem to be saying, “Since you are sovereign over all things, you must carry out justice Lord, in accordance to your holy character.”

This reminded me greatly of that important passage in Exodus 34 where God declares His name to Moses:

The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name of the LORD. [6] The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, “The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, [7] keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.” (Exodus 34:5-7)

These saints are not spewing bitter vengeance, but a love for the reputation of God. And they know that the only way for God’s character to be upheld is for justice to be carried out. For all sin must be punished. You are either covered in the blood of the lamb, protected as it were, by the altar of His sacrifice, or you are naked and defenseless to bear the wrath of God for all of your sins.

The warning is made strikingly clear by the author of Hebrews who says:

How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? [30] For we know him who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” [31] It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:29-31)

What is the takeaway? May we have a similar regard for the reputation of the Lord we serve.

6:11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.

The idea here is that these saints have been killed by the tribulations of the four horsemen. These are the faithful Christians who have stood for the Word of God throughout the ages, and cry out for the Lord to bring about the final word of justice.

We can tell they are believers because they are described as those “slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne.” Furthermore they are given “a white robe” which often signifies the reward of those who have died in Christ. Lastly we see their position as being “under the alter” and Beale recommends that we see this not as the Brazen alter of sacrifice, but as the alter of incense which is before the throne of God. This fits well with the reality that only Christ has occupied that Brazen alter in an ultimate sense. Ladd disagrees and sees no real issue with combining the idea of the sacrificial death of saints with the brazen alter.

Either way, the image conveys to us that these saints are being poured out as an offering to the Lord through their witness and identification with the slain lamb. They are protected under the altar of the holy temple, which is in the midst of the throne of God.

What is interesting to me is that on earth we long for the return of Christ – we are plagued by sin and by tribulation. Yet even here in heaven we see that there is a longing for the Lord’s return, and for His vindication. These saints are in a place of rest, yet God is telling them that the time is not yet ready for the end.

The message of the 5th seal is that troubles in life are not meaningless. And, like in the rest of the book, Christians are given hope and encouraged that God is sovereign over all the circumstances in our lives and in the world in general.

We are told to endure for the sake of His name. We are to “take up our cross daily” as Jesus exhorts in the Gospels (Matthew 16:24; Luke 9:23), and to endure the tribulation brought on by the four horses.

Therefore, Christ the Lamb is the One will one day come back in great glory to renew the earth and heavens and judge the quick and the dead. It is that Day of Judgment which John describes next…

The Sixth Seal

6:12-17 When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, [13] and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. [14] The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. [15] Then the kings of the earth and the great ones and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, [16] calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb, [17] for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”

Now at the opening of the sixth seal John sees a vision of the final judgment, which the saints from the previous seal had longed to see. He sees the great and mighty Day of the Lord – the Day described as one in which no one could stand against the wrath of God.

Like so many other images in Revelation, these verses are steeped in OT imagery – especially from Isaiah 34. Beale actually cites Isaiah 13:10-13; 24:1-6, 19-23; 34:4; Ezekiel 32:6-8; Joel 2:10, 30-31; 3:15-16; and Habakkuk 3:6-11 among others.[iii]

The images include:

  • A great earthquake
  • Sun becomes black
  • The Moon becomes like blood
  • Stars fall to the earth
  • Sky vanishes like a scroll
  • Mountains and islands were completely moved
  • All people (great and small) who dwell on the earth hide and long for suicide

The Isaiah 34 passage states:

Their slain shall be cast out, and the stench of their corpses shall rise; the mountains shall flow with their blood. [4] All the host of heaven shall rot away, and the skies roll up like a scroll. All their host shall fall, as leaves fall from the vine, like leaves falling from the fig tree. [5] For my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens; behold, it descends for judgment upon Edom, upon the people I have devoted to destruction. (Isaiah 34:3-5)

Its nobles—there is no one there to call it a kingdom, and all its princes shall be nothing. (Isaiah 34:12)

Another key passage is found in Joel 2:

The sun shall be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood, before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. [32] And it shall come to pass that everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved. For in Mount Zion and in Jerusalem there shall be those who escape, as the LORD has said, and among the survivors shall be those whom the LORD calls. (Joel 2:31-32)

The sum total of these things is a cataclysmic day in which God announces His presence in a very “earth shattering” way. The final judgment, the Day of the Lord, the great coming of our Lord Jesus has shaken the very foundations of the earth. The idea here is to show the fear of all of those who dwell on the earth at the time of the Day of the Lord.

This also parallels Jesus’ Olivet discourse, especially Matthew 24:29:

Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. (Matthew 24:29)

Therefore what this scene is showing us is the final judgment and second coming of our Lord. For Jesus then goes on to say:

Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. [31] And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Matthew 24:30-31)

Recapitulation Reminder

So here we are at the end of chapter 6, with still 16 other chapters to study, and we’re already reading about the final scene of the judgment of God. How can this be? Well, as I have mentioned before, Revelation is a book that contains a series of visions – they are recapitulated over and again to reiterate for us different aspects of the same scene. Like multiple cameras setup at a football game to capture different angles of the action, these snap shots showcase different perspectives on the same scenes. We might think of Jesus who taught continually about the kingdom of God, yet in the Gospel accounts we find Him using different analogies that emphasize many truths and realities upon which that kingdom is founded. Many perspectives on the same truth. Many ways to get at the same reality.

As I was driving to the hospital with my good friends Mike and Tracy yesterday, on our way to visit a loved one, and our discussion tended toward the importance of “retelling the old story” of the redemptive plan of God for mankind. Not simply the Romans road, but the whole of the story from Genesis through Revelation and how it all fits together. We decided that it is in retelling the story that Christians gain strength and are encouraged in all God has done for us in Christ.

Could it be that this retelling of the story again and again in Revelation is essentially getting at the same thing? Jesus wants to show us in manifold ways the old old story, and to showcase His plan of redemption again and again for us so that we won’t forget and so that we’ll learn to treasure His plan and so that we’ll take comfort in the truth that He’s in control of said plans.

Literal or Figurative?

There is a lot of debate about whether these images are figurative or literal. I tend to think of them as figurative because in the context of this passage we’ve read about the four horses and those slain as being under the alter, among many other figuratively styled literary conveyances of ideas. These devices seem to be bound up together in continuity with the rest of the passage, not suddenly changed in these verses to accommodate a different literary form – which would seem odd. Beale gives OT application to the argument, but I am not an OT scholar. However, I am a student of literature, and to go from reading the previous verses symbolically to reading these in some other way, would seem inconsistent.

So I think these images are conveying a deeper meaning – deeper in that its mysterious to some, but to those who carefully study these things, and know their OT, and have wisdom from God, they are made clear. And in their clarity there is richness that would not be there save for this style of conveying the point.

NOTE: There are several evidences for believing these things continue to be figurative, and Hendriksen points out that even if one considers the stars falling to earth, that would never work physically/literally because many such stars would be bigger than the earth.

Therefore the question is what do these images convey? I think they convey great dread at the second coming of our Lord.

Some Concluding Thoughts

One of the things that struck me while reading the passage was how John is here shown the absolute dread that will be upon anyone dwelling on the earth who do not belong to Jesus (note especially verse 32 in the Joel passage).

The reaction of the people who are left on the earth is telling – first they want to hide. But since they obviously can’t hide, they realize that there is no hope. Adam and Eve, who tried to hide after their sins (Genesis 3:9) realized this truth quickly. And throughout the prophets we read of men on the earth who call on the rocks and caves to hide their idolatry (Hosea 10:1-3, 8, 11:2; Jeremiah 4:23-30; 5:7 – cf. Beale Pg. 400 who makes the case well).

Beale explains, “The unbelievers’ idol-refuge, the earth, muse be removed because it has been made impermanent by the pollution of their sin, but the eternal home of believers with their God will remain.” What he is getting at is that humanity “has become perverted and has worshiped the creation (cf. Romans 1:21-25; Revelation 9:20).”[iv]

Therefore this is the crux of the matter. There are two main points here:

  1. This will be a day in which the truth that weighs down every man or woman who doesn’t acknowledge God subconsciously, will now be brought to light in such a way that no one will escape its reality: there is no hope apart from Jesus.

There is no escape without the help of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God – He is the only hope. Caves will not hide you from God’s wrath, only the altar of the sacrifice of Christ who covers us in His blood will sufficiently protect us from the holy wrath of God on that day.[v]

  1. The suffering of the elect is not meaningless. God has a purpose in all of these things – a purpose which leads to our refinement and His glory.

As Tim Keller says, “Christianity teaches that, contra fatalism, suffering is overwhelming; contra Buddhism, suffering is real; contra karma, suffering is often unfair; but contra secularism, suffering is meaningful. There is a purpose to it, and if faced rightly, it can drive us like a nail deep into the love of God and into more stability and spiritual power than you can imagine.”[vi]

Now, John is shown another vision that concerns the elect. That will take up the entire focus of chapter 7 and some label this an interlude. Chapter 7 will almost be as if to say, “Now that you’ve seen the terrifying day of the Lord, you are probably wondering about those saints from the 5th seal. How will they survive these things? What will be their end? Well, check this vision out.”

The vision in chapter seven serves to answer the final question of verse 17, “the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?”

Footnotes

[i] See also the example of Noah from Hebrews 11: “By faith Noah, being warned by God concerning events as yet unseen, in reverent fear constructed an ark for the saving of his household. By this he condemned the world and became an heir of the righteousness that comes by faith.” (Hebrews 11:7)

[ii] We shouldn’t press this NT angle too far in my opinion, for the saints of old looked forward in anticipation and having now been united to Christ due to the sacrifice of Jesus they would also be identified as witnesses, albeit from heaven (see Hebrews 11 and Moses’ identification with Christ). Still, these people were identified as those who died as witnesses while presumably on earth, which makes the NT emphasis legitimate.

[iii] Beale’s longer commentary, Pg. 396.

[iv] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 402.

[v] I realize that Beale says there is some protective nature/sense of the altar here in chapter 6 and I agree with that. However, that the altar protects us from the wrath of God is a conclusion I have arrived at on my own, taking the imagery to its rightful conclusion (I believe).

[vi] Tim Keller, Pg. 30, Walking with God through Pain and Suffering. As quoted from: http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/20-quotes-from-walking-with-god-through-pain-and-suffering

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

Chapter 6

Chapter six takes us to the next stage of John’s vision with the scroll and its seven seals. Let us recall that the book/scroll represents the future destiny of mankind. Unlike the scroll of Ezekiel which emphasized judgment, this scroll speaks to both judgment and reward.

Historic pre-millenialist George Ladd puts it this way:

The book itself contains two things which complement each other; the establishment of the Kingdom of God and the fathering of his saints into His kingdom; and the judgment of God upon the evil demonic powers which have oppressed his people.[i]

He rightly calls it the “book of destiny.” And this book is only able to be opened by the slain Lamb, that is, the Son of God Jesus Christ.

This is why we begin chapter six verse one with the opening of the seals by the Lamb, which Douglass Kelly tells us, “The Lamb is in charge of history” and “He is behind the unleashing of historical forces that bring devastation and munificent changes in our lives and in the history of the world; the Lamb is behind them, for Rev. 6:1 show him opening ‘one of the seals’ that controls the future.”[ii]

There are various interpretations as to what we are about to read about – especially as to when these things are to take place.

But I think that Revelation 4-5 provide the backdrop for Revelation 6-8 and the breaking of the seals. Remember that chapters 4-5 celebrate the victory of Christ’s defeat over death, his victorious resurrection and his ascension to the throne.

With this in mind, also keep in mind that the images and storyline in Revelation is informed by what the prophets already predicted – specifically Zechariah 6, Ezekiel 5 and 14, Leviticus 26, Deuteronomy 32, Jeremiah 15&16 and of course Daniel 7. Additionally, in the case of chapter six, there definitely a parallel in the synoptic gospels to the Olivet Discourse (esp. Matthew 24).

Therefore, as James Hamilton says, “I think this presentation of the four horsemen of the Apocalypse is a kind of schematic that represents the flow of history – inspiring rulers that leave wars and devastation in their wake.”[iii]

I’ll get into the summary of this view after we look at the verses specifically.

But before we do that, let’s examine the OT and NT context for this passage…

OT Parallels and Synoptic Parallels

Like the other parts of Revelation, John’s vision is informed by things Jesus has already taught during His time on earth, and the principles embodied in OT imagery.

Hamilton, Beale, Mounce, Ladd and other see a definite parallel between the Olivet Discourse and what is going on here in Revelation 6. Hamilton says, “I think that Revelation 6 in Matthew 24 are complementary presentations of world history between the first and second coming of Christ.”

Some of the key verses in Matthew 24 state:

As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” [4] And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. [5] For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. [6] And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. [7] For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. [8] All these are but the beginning of the birth pains. [9] “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. [10] And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. [11] And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. [12] And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. [13] But the one who endures to the end will be saved. [14] And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come. (Matthew 24:3-14)

You can see the parallel here with false Messiah’s (the white rider), with famine, pestilence, war and tribulation. All of these things are described by the four horsemen.

There is also significant OT imagery that forms the backdrop. Beale says:

Most obvious background is Zachariah 6:1–8. There four groups of horses of different color or commission by God to patrol the earth and punish those nations that they see a person God’s people (Zechariah 6:5-8). These nations were raised by God to be a rod of punishment to his people, but they inflicted more tribulation on Israel than they should have. God will punish them for their transgressions as a vindication of his jealous love for Israel (Zechariah 1:8-15). Therefore, the horses in Revelation 6:1–8 signify that the natural and political disaster throughout the world are caused by Christ in order to judge unbelievers who persecute Christians and in order to vindicate his people. This vindication will demonstrate his love for his people and his justice, and already maybe anticipated an answer to the cry for vengeance in 6:9–11.[iv]

That passage goes as follows:

Again I lifted my eyes and saw, and behold, four chariots came out from between two mountains. And the mountains were mountains of bronze. [2] The first chariot had red horses, the second black horses, [3] the third white horses, and the fourth chariot dappled horses—all of them strong. [4] Then I answered and said to the angel who talked with me, “What are these, my lord?” [5] And the angel answered and said to me, “These are going out to the four winds of heaven, after presenting themselves before the Lord of all the earth. [6] The chariot with the black horses goes toward the north country, the white ones go after them, and the dappled ones go toward the south country.” [7] When the strong horses came out, they were impatient to go and patrol the earth. And he said, “Go, patrol the earth.” So they patrolled the earth. [8] Then he cried to me, “Behold, those who go toward the north country have set my Spirit at rest in the north country.” (Zechariah 6:1-8)

Beale says, “Ezekiel 14:12–23 is also formative for this section (cf. deut. 32:23-25). Ezekiel 14:21 is explicitly quoted in Revelation 6:8b, where it functions as a general summary of the preceding trials of conquest, sort of, and famine, the first two of which include ‘death.’”

That passage goes like this:

And the word of the LORD came to me: [13] “Son of man, when a land sins against me by acting faithlessly, and I stretch out my hand against it and break its supply of bread and send famine upon it, and cut off from it man and beast, [14] even if these three men, Noah, Daniel, and Job, were in it, they would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness, declares the Lord GOD. [15] “If I cause wild beasts to pass through the land, and they ravage it, and it be made desolate, so that no one may pass through because of the beasts, [16] even if these three men were in it, as I live, declares the Lord GOD, they would deliver neither sons nor daughters. They alone would be delivered, but the land would be desolate. [17] “Or if I bring a sword upon that land and say, Let a sword pass through the land, and I cut off from it man and beast, [18] though these three men were in it, as I live, declares the Lord GOD, they would deliver neither sons nor daughters, but they alone would be delivered. [19] “Or if I send a pestilence into that land and pour out my wrath upon it with blood, to cut off from it man and beast, [20] even if Noah, Daniel, and Job were in it, as I live, declares the Lord GOD, they would deliver neither son nor daughter. They would deliver but their own lives by their righteousness. [21] “For thus says the Lord GOD: How much more when I send upon Jerusalem my four disastrous acts of judgment, sword, famine, wild beasts, and pestilence, to cut off from it man and beast! [22] But behold, some survivors will be left in it, sons and daughters who will be brought out; behold, when they come out to you, and you see their ways and their deeds, you will be consoled for the disaster that I have brought upon Jerusalem, for all that I have brought upon it. [23] They will console you, when you see their ways and their deeds, and you shall know that I have not done without cause all that I have done in it, declares the Lord GOD.” (Ezekiel 14:12-23)

Beale explains, “The point of Ezekiel 14:21 is that all Israelites will suffer persecution because of rampant idolatry (14:3-11). The purpose of the trials is to punish the majority of the nation because of rampant idolatry and simultaneously to purify the righteous remnant by testing their faith (cf. 14:14, 16, 18, 20, 20-23). The same dual-purpose is likely in mind in Revelation 6, except now the church community is the focus of the judgments. The faithful will be purified, but those who compromise through idolatry and become disloyal to Christ will be judged by the same tribulations.”[v]

“Therefore, the segments from Zechariah, Ezekiel, and Leviticus provide The compositional paradigm for Revelation 6:1–8…Revelation 6:1–8 deals not only with judgments on the world of unbelief but also with persecution of Christians, since this is a theme shared by all three versions of the synoptic apocalyptic discourse (e.g. Luke 21:12-24).”[vi]

The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse

6:1 Now I watched when the Lamb opened one of the seven seals, and I heard one of the four living creatures say with a voice like thunder, “Come!”

What we see here is that the four living creatures, that is, the Cherubim, repeatedly say, “Come!” and once they say this each successive horse comes forth in action. These angels are before the throne of God and obey His commands. In Ezekiel we read of how like lightening they fire off throughout the earth obeying the commands of the Holy One (cf. Ezekiel 1:14, 19, 20).

What this means is that the judgments brought on by the horses are all directly ordained by God. He has decreed these things for a purpose. In point of fact, this sequence of events shows that as the Lamb is the one breaking the seals, it is the Lamb who is ordaining that all of these things take place.

6:2 And I looked, and behold, a white horse! And its rider had a bow, and a crown was given to him, and he came out conquering, and to conquer.

There seems to be three interpretations of who this white rider is, and two of them are mainstream and shared by most commentators. Either the rider is Jesus coming to conquer (as in chapter 19), part of Satan’s forces of evil – a messianic pretender, of sorts (as in Matthew 24), or a third interpretation is that it is the proclamation of the gospel (as in the sword of the spirit and the conviction of the word – Christ coming to “cast fire on the earth” etc.).

Hendriksen and Ladd make good cases for this being Christ, due to the white garments, the nature of the word “conquer” and the parallel with chapter 19. But Mounce, Beale and Hamilton look even more in-depth at this and rule this interpretation out. Their extensive investigation convinced me that it is best to interpret this rider as part of the whole – all four describing simultaneous events occurring in history between Christ’s first coming and His return.

As Mounce says, “The arguments against Christ as the writer of the Whitehorse, however, are of sufficient strength to make the identification unlikely. A comparison of chapter 6 and 19 shows that the two writers have little in common be on the fact that they are both mounted on white horses.”[vii]

Furthermore, the parallel with Matthew 24 and the false messiah’s Jesus mentioned in that discourse is striking.

Hamilton says, “Let’s think for a moment about messianic pretenders. This first horseman looks like Jesus, the rider on the white horse in chapter 19, but he isn’t Jesus. Remember, those who do not worship the one true and living God who ever exists in three persons, the same in essence, equal in power and glory, will worship false gods. They may not call what they worship “god/s,” but they will worship themselves or money or success or sports team or video game or learning or power or per prestige or some utopian vision of the good life. Humans will worship.”[viii]

Beale cites 2 Corinthians 11 and says:

Therefore, the first rider represents a Satanic force attempting to defeat and oppress believers spiritually through deception, persecution, or both (so 11:7; 13:7). The image of the rider may include reference to (1) the antichrist, (2) governments that persecute Christians, or (3) the devil’s servants in general…”white” elsewhere in the book does not primarily connote victory but the persevering righteousness of Christ in the Saints. Here white male referred to the forces of evil as they try to appear righteous and thus deceive by imitating Christ (cf. 2 Corinthians 11:13-15).[ix]

That Corinthians passage goes like this:

For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. [14] And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. [15] So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds. (2 Corinthians 11:13-15)

There are several other great reasons for believing this is part of the whole – not the least of which are literary concerns for the summing up of the four horsemen as all part of one unit (see Beale’s notes on verses 7-8).

6:3-4 When he opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” [4] And out came another horse, bright red. Its rider was permitted to take peace from the earth, so that people should slay one another, and he was given a great sword.

This is part of the idea of wars that will occur during the time between Christ’s first coming and His return. There likely aren’t specific wars in mind, but rather wars in general.

Beale says, “…the idea of Nations battling one another and the attendant conditions of such warfare are not primarily thought of, although they are included. Uppermost in the mind are the antagonistic actions of Satan’s forces aimed at the communities of both faith and unbelief. Therefore, the fourfold Old Testament formulas concerning the judgment of literal warfare has been expanded by John to include woes of spiritual warfare.”[x]

6:5-6 When he opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” And I looked, and behold, a black horse! And its rider had a pair of scales in his hand. [6] And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a denarius, and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!”

It is commonly accepted that this black horse deals with famine, which is normally the result of wars upon the earth, though it is not necessarily limited to a condition of war.

The economic situation here is one of severe inflation. As Beale explains:

A denarius was a day’s wage (cf. Matthew 20:2), and a quart of wheat was about enough for one person for three days, although three quarts of barley was enough for a typical family for one day. The prices listed here are about 8 to 16 times the average prices in the Roman Empire at the time. Therefore, those suffering from the famine will only be able to buy limited food quantities for their family, and there will be nothing left over to provide for any of the other necessities of life such as “wine and oil.” That the trees and vines producing oil and wine are not affected further emphasizes the limited aspect of the famine.[xi]

Some say that the leaving out of wine and oil as part of the pestilence and famine indicates that there will be inequity between rich and poor. That could be true, and I think that it may be the case. But I like how Mounce reasons that it would be an odd thing for the Lord to declare for this to specifically be the case. As he says:

The warning about the oil and one has been variously interpreted. Some feel it was added to underscore the social inequities existing in a time of scarcity. It is the poor, not the rich, who suffer. Oil and wine, however, were not luxuries, but part of the basic commodities of life. It would also be difficult understand why the lamb – the voice “in the midst of the four living creatures” – would issue an order favoring the rich and aggravating the plight of the poor…It is simpler to take it as a natural limitation to the famine.[xii]

6:7-8 When he opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” [8] And I looked, and behold, a pale horse! And its rider’s name was Death, and Hades followed him. And they were given authority over a fourth of the earth, to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth.

These verses serve as a sort of summary of the preceding verses. Death is the natural end to all of the afflictions of the first three horses. False prophets, war, famine all lead to death. Therefore these are a sequence of chronological events, but a description of the multifaceted threats to life that we face – both believers and unbelievers – while living upon the earth.

Beale rightly says, “These final four plagues have a partial effect, since the last horseman summarizes the previous three and the disaster he brings is limited to “a fourth of the earth.” The four woes do not harm every person without exception.”[xiii]

As you see the different trials and tribulations that are poured out upon the earth you start to see how Jesus is showing John the familiar imagery of the OT, while more specifically using the Olivet Discourse (what He had already said during His time on earth) as the template for his teaching. Therefore, we see a consistency between the teaching of Jesus during His time on earth, and what John sees in this vision.

Conclusion

These judgments describe what Daniel described in chapter 7 of his prophecy when he spoke of the four kingdoms of the earth. They describe all the evil that will come upon the earth in the time between the two advents of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus has been resurrected, His ascension and reign are described in chapters four and five, and He controls all of world history. In the time before His second coming Jesus ordains all manner of evil, wars, plagues and tribulation showing that He alone is in control of all things as the potter is with the clay, and He is moving human history along toward a definite goal.

Why would the Lord do these things? Why would He ordain that evil should come upon the earth? Hamilton explains:

Why would God allow these things? I think that God wants a clear contrast between what results from embracing his rule and what results from rejecting it. God wants people to see what happens when humans reject the true God and embrace false gods. God wants people to see what happens when humans reject the rightful king, The Lords Messiah, Jesus, and replace them with some chump who looks good and speaks well. So God let’s these fools have their day in the sun, and he lets all the mayhem and ruin that results from their pride and folly to defile this world. God let’s all this happen so that his wisdom, his power, his righteousness will be seen clearly. God wants people to know that only he can bring peace, justice, security, and happiness. God wants to be worshiped as God, and he wants people to embrace the rule of king Jesus, the Messiah.

Beale concludes[xiv]:

In summary, through his death and resurrection, Christ has made the world forces of evil his agents to execute his purposes of sanctification and judgment for the furtherance of his kingdom. This is most clearly seen in the reference to Jesus is sovereignty over “death and Hades” in 6:8, which is a further development of chapter 1: Through his death and resurrection Christ has power over, “death and Hades” (1:18) and now he uses them as his agents to carry out his will. God intended that the suffering of the cross should have both the redemptive and a judicial purpose (i.e., with respect to the latter, the cross becomes a basis of judgment for those rejecting it’s saving significance).[xv]

 

Footnotes

[i] Ladd, Pg. 95.

[ii] Kelly, Pg. 111.

[iii] Ladd says, “As the lamb breaks each of the first four seals, for horses right forth on the earth as instruments of the divine purpose: the first is white, the second read, the third black, and the fourth pale. The background for the symbolism is found in Zachariah 6:1 where the prophet is given a vision of four chariot strong by horse of different colors: red, black, white, and dappled gray. These four chariots right out to the four winds to patrol the earth as instruments of God’s wrath upon the enemies of his people.” Page 96

[iv] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 372

[v] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 372-373

[vi] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 373. I am deeply indebted to the way in which both G.K. Beale and Jim Hamilton exposited this chapter. Their in-depth work has been so very helpful that I couldn’t have fully come to my own conclusions without their wisdom. Ladd, Mounce, and others were, of course useful, but Hamilton and Beale really logically think through every option to the point where one is able to judge better what to make of the passage.

[vii] Mounce, Pg.153

[viii] Hamilton, Pg. 178

[ix] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 377

[x] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 383

[xi] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 381

[xii] Mounce, Pg. 156

[xiii] Beale, Longer commentary, Pg. 385

[xiv] On page 388 of the longer commentary, Beale goes on to address some of the concern of God being the “author of evil” as some say this passage must indicate or somehow avoid etc. Here is what he says: Some commentators do not think there is a theological problem, since they do not view Christ as the immediate cause of the judgments. The problem is sometimes avoided by adopting secondary textual variants that view John as the recipient of the address “come,” while on the other hand, Christ is sometimes conjectured as the recipient of the address (see on 6:1). Those rejecting these two alternatives offer theological presuppositions about God’s holiness in love in order to deny the direct link, and there is the consequent assertion that Christ only “permits” or “tolerates” the four Horsemen to execute their woes. But not only do the commands issued to the horseman by the chairman argue against such an idea, but the major Old Testament passages behind 6:2–8 without exception have God is the ultimate cause of the judgments (so Zachariah 6:1–8; Ezekiel 14:21; Leviticus 26:18-28).

[xv] Beale, longer commentary, Pg. 385

Revelation 4: The Throne Room

Last Sunday I taught on Revelation chapter four. Inevitably the discussion was richer than the notes reveal, and I mentioned other verses that sometimes I would normally add back in after the fact, but for this post I’m going to leave it as is simply due to time constraints. That being said, I hope you enjoy the notes, and allow some grace for their brevity. Looking back on the matter, I would like to have taken more time with this chapter, which is what I’m planning to do with chapter five (slated for this Sunday morning).

Chapter 4

We are now done with the letters to the churches, and John receives a new vision. Remember, he has already seen a vision in chapter one (Jesus walking in the midst of the churches etc.), and this is a new one with a new scene.

There are certain passages in Scripture which cause us to meditate upon the beauty and majesty and power of the Lord God, and Revelation 4 and 5 are two of the most majestic of those types of passages found in the sacred Text.

To frame this section of scripture, I want to quote from Hendriksen because while he definitely agrees with other commentators on these things, he seems to say it a little better:

Chapters 4 and 5 teach us one main lesson. Unless we clearly grasp this point, we shall never see the glorious unity of the Apocalypse. We shall lose ourselves in allegorization. That one main lesson may be expressed in the words of the Psalmist: “Jehovah reigns; let the peoples tremble! He sits above the cherubim; let the earth be moved.” The assurance of this truth should impart comfort to believers in the midst of fiery trials. That is why this vision of the universe governed by the throne precedes the symbolic description of the trials through which the Church must pass, chapter 6. This is a very beautiful arrangement.[i]

Indeed these chapters are a great gift to the church. For as Jim Hamilton notes, “Our need for this text is much the same as the need of the seven churches to which John sent this letter.”[ii] Which is to say that we need to have our faith in the living God bolstered, and these chapters leave us in awe of who He is, and remind us again of His great sovereignty over all life.

4:1 After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.”

The first thing we ought to note is that these images that John sees are often described using the words “like” or “likeness”, and this is because he is transcribing things that are difficult to describe and is using the best words he knows how in order that we might profit from the vision. These words should not be taken as anything less than inspired, however. We ought to remember that while John is writing about amazing things, things difficult to grasp, he is seeing things God has purposefully shown in a way God has purposefully shown, using words that God has purposefully superintended.

With that said, we ought to first note that there is a door open in heaven. That means that God has opened up a window to see into the great things of heaven. In other visions the separation of physical and metaphysical has been opened using similar expressions. For example, at the very beginning of Ezekiel we read:

In the thirtieth year, in the fourth month, on the fifth day of the month, as I was among the exiles by the Chebar canal, the heavens were opened, and I saw visions of God. (Ezekiel 1:1)

The voice he hears is like a trumpet – which is to say it is very loud! It got his attention.

The voice says the he will “show you what must take place after this.”

There is some debate about what “after” means, but I think the easiest and most natural understanding of this is that we are beginning a new vision. It doesn’t mean “after this chronologically”, but rather “the next vision I saw.”

This is where dispensationalists say that the church has been raptured, that the trumpet blast is the blast of the final trumpet at the return of Christ, and that the elders represent the church in heaven, and so on. But there is nothing to indicate that John’s beginning of a new vision has anything to do with the rapture of the church. Furthermore, it says that the voice of God is like a trumpet, not that it was a trumpet that he heard here.

It is one thing to try to understand the meaning in a symbol, it is another to insert something that doesn’t quite fit simply in order to conform to a certain system of thought.

Nevertheless, it is clear that what we have here is the beginning of a new vision, and thus a new division of the book.

4:2-3 At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. [3] And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald.

Again, similar to how Ezekiel described his own experience, he first says that the heavens were opened, and then notes that he was under the power of the Holy Spirit.

Now John sees something amazing – it is a throne in heaven and there is someone seated on the throne, and John is concerned to explain this person’s appearance. So he says that he is like “jasper and “carnelian.” These are gems of presumably great value. Little is known about “jasper” now, and it is said to perhaps be a diamond that he’s referring to. The point though is that the one who sat on the throne is of exquisite beauty.

Have you ever noticed how the lighting in a church sanctuary really causes your jewelry to sparkle? I just think that some lighting in certain places really brings out the “bling” in gems and jewelry. Well, think of the most precious gem you have ever seen, surrounded by the most radiant and pure light you’ve ever beheld, and John says you’re just starting to get at what the one seated on the throne looked like.

Furthermore, the throne is surrounded by a rainbow that must be green, for it “had the appearance of an emerald.” In other words, it is beautiful, it is majestic, it is valuable/precious exquisite scene.

4:4 Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads.

The twenty four elders seem to represent believers – God’s elect from across time. Perhaps a reference to the sum of the 12 patriarchs and the 12 apostles is meant here, and “taken together, represent the church in its character as a universal priesthood of believers.”[iii] Though they may actually be angelic representatives offering prayer on our behalf (Morris). Beale makes the distinction because he notes that the elders are “distinguished from the multitude of the saved in 7:9-17. And the fact that they present the prayers of the saints in 5:8 and sing of the redeemed in the third person also distinguishes them from believers.”

Beale’s conclusion makes some good sense of the OT backdrop:

Remembering that in the letters the angels were identified as representatives of the seven churches and that in Daniel 10-12 angels represent nations, the elders here are to be identified as angelic beings representing the church as a whole, including the saints of the OT. If the four living creatures are heavenly representatives of all animate life throughout creation (as most interpreters think), then the elders are probably heavenly representatives of God’s people. The four living beings represent general creation and the elders the elect of God’s special creation.[iv]

These elders are wearing “white garments” and have “golden crowns on their heads.” Even though I disagree with much of what John MacArthur says about the timeline of this chapter, I think his description of the white garments here is great:

Christ promised the believers at Sardis that they would “be clothed in white garments” (3:5). He advised the apostate Laodiceans to “buy from Me…white garments so that you may clothe yourself (3:18). At the marriage supper of the Lamb, His bride will “clothe herself in fine linen, bright and clean” (19:8). White garments symbolize Christ’s righteousness imputed to believers at salvation.[v]

Golden crowns are likewise described as part of the garb of these elders. They are thought to symbolize victory, since in the preceding chapters Jesus promises golden crowns to those who overcome (cf. 2:10, 3:11, 18 etc.). There was also many times in those letters that Jesus promised we would sit with him on thrones – similar to what we see here as well.

4:5-7 From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God, [6] and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal. And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: [7] the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight.

A Familiar Scene

If this scene sounds familiar, then it’s because you’ve read something like it before. The lightning, rumblings and peals of thunder that accompany the presence of God’s throne here are likewise given in Ezekiel 1 and Isaiah 6:

As I looked, behold, a stormy wind came out of the north, and a great cloud, with brightness around it, and fire flashing forth continually, and in the midst of the fire, as it were gleaming metal. (Ezekiel 1:4)

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. (Isaiah 6:4 ESV)

Likewise, in both Ezekiel and Isaiah the descriptions of these creatures are very similar. Here is just a portion of that description from chapter 10 of Ezekiel:

These were the living creatures that I saw underneath the God of Israel by the Chebar canal; and I knew that they were cherubim. [21] Each had four faces, and each four wings, and underneath their wings the likeness of human hands. [22] And as for the likeness of their faces, they were the same faces whose appearance I had seen by the Chebar canal. Each one of them went straight forward. (Ezekiel 10:20-22)

And Isaiah 6…

Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. [3] And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:2-3)

They are described as being “full of eyes” in front and behind. Similarly in Ezekiel 10 we read:

And I looked, and behold, there were four wheels beside the cherubim, one beside each cherub, and the appearance of the wheels was like sparkling beryl. [10] And as for their appearance, the four had the same likeness, as if a wheel were within a wheel. [11] When they went, they went in any of their four directions without turning as they went, but in whatever direction the front wheel faced, the others followed without turning as they went. [12] And their whole body, their rims, and their spokes, their wings, and the wheels were full of eyes all around—the wheels that the four of them had. [13] As for the wheels, they were called in my hearing “the whirling wheels.” [14] And every one had four faces: the first face was the face of the cherub, and the second face was a human face, and the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle. (Ezekiel 10:9-14)

So right away we understand that God is using imagery that John and his contemporaries would understand and be familiar with. They’d no doubt read about and maybe even recited aloud the words of Ezekiel’s book growing up in that Jewish culture.

The Imagery

We encounter again the “seven spirits of God, which we noted earlier represents the fullness of the Holy Spirit. And here we are told of another descriptor for the Spirit, that He is like seven torches burning before the throne of God. When we think of fire as it relates to the Spirit, we are reminded of Pentecost and the symbolic fire that appeared in the likeness of tongues on that day. It was a notification to God’s people that He was amongst them.

The storm is like a great reminder that God is in control of nature, and more poignantly that He is powerful and awesome in His presence. “For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods” (Ps. 96:4 also cf. 1 Chron. 16:25).

This imagery reminds us of the interaction Moses and the Israelites had with God at the foot of Mt. Sinai:

On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. [17] Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. [18] Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. [19] And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. [20] The LORD came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. (Exodus 19:16-20)

There is also a sea of glass before His throne, like crystal, as it were. This was the hardest thing for me to wrap my head around. I found a lot of help from Katie who threw out several ideas – each of which commentators also mention, which just shows you that much of these images are rooted in what we already know about the Bible and God. As we got to be talking through it, I read her the notes from the Reformation Study Bible (this is the first edition, not the latest one), and it was helpful in summing up some of the ideas about what this sea is:

This imagery might suggest a number of associations. The parallel verse in 15:2 calls to mind the waters of the Red Sea. The defeat of Pharaoh and the pushing back of the waters foreshadowed God’s final victory over evil (Is. 51:9-11). If so, the sea of glass pictures water subdued under God’s power. Moreover, the extent and beauty of the crystal—like sea, when taken together with the precious stones in vs. 3 and 21:18-21, suggest the magnificence and preciousness of Gods’ throne. The numerous parallels elsewhere with the temple might suggest that this sea is the heavenly counterpart of the sea in Solomon’s temple (1 Kings 7:23-25). Finally, the picture of heavenly water might suggest that God faithfully supplies water from heaven (Deut. 11:11). It is consistent with the style of Revelation to weave together a number of Old Testament images.

George Ladd says, “The easiest interpretation is to see in the glass sea a picturesque element adding to the majesty of the divine presence.”[vi]

Then we encounter the four living creatures, which we noted that Ezekiel explained were the Seraphim who are constantly before the throne of God worshiping Him. And this is what they say…

4:8-11 And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!” [9] And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, [10] the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying, [11] “Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”

Worship of the Holy One

Notice that whatever the Seraphim do, the elders do. The three-fold song of “holy, holy, holy” is constantly on the lips of these creatures and the response of the elders is to agree by proclaiming the worthiness of the Lord.

This ascribing of worth to the Lord is the content of true worship. Worship is not simply an “encounter with God,” it is our reaction to that encounter in a manner that is true. It is ascribing to the Lord all that is due to Him.

This worthiness is specifically tied to God’s absolute power as the Creator. All things exist because His wills them to exist. In fact, the word “absolute” is an apt descriptor because what these beings are saying is that there is nothing which comes even close to God’s glory, His honor, or His power. That He “lives forever” reminds us of His eternality. He is in a class entirely by Himself.

When God spoke through the prophet Isaiah to show that He was the One true God, He constantly reminded the Israelites that He was the creator, as opposed to the idols they worshiped.

One such example is from Isaiah 40:

To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compare with him? [19] An idol! A craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and casts for it silver chains. [20] He who is too impoverished for an offering chooses wood that will not rot; he seeks out a skillful craftsman to set up an idol that will not move. [21] Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth? [22] It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; [23] who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness. (Isaiah 40:18-23)

Remember now the idolatry and false teaching that Christ addresses in the letters to the seven churches. I don’t think the placement of this scene coming right after the letters is coincidence. It is as if to show the majestic God of heaven in great contrast with the gods of our appetites and the idols of our lives. This is the Lord. This is the maker of heaven and earth.

Addressing God

It is typical of our vernacular to generalize things in everyday conversation. We say “He always does this” or “We never go there” or “He is the only person I know who can do this” and so forth. We know in the back of our minds that our generalization is hyperbolic because it is applied to creatures are necessarily finite. Yet this is not the case with God. We can apply these general-type descriptors to God because He is eternal, immutable, and absolute in His character.

Therefore He is the only being worthy of worship. All lesser beings simply do not have the ontology and character worthy of our worship.

I mention character because one of the things that makes God so worthy of our worship and of our “giving thanks” is His loving-kindness to His creatures (us). His presence is awesome and awful in its power and majesty. Yet, He is loving and beneficent to His image bearers.

So it is not wrong for us to be reminded from this passage once again of the reverence we ought to have when addressing God in prayer and in worship. We need to keep in mind whom it is that we are standing or kneeling before. This is the great God, the maker of heaven and earth, by whom all things existed.

Similarly, we are thankful to Him for His Son who died for us. Paul certainly captures a majestic image of Christ as co-equal in stature with the God we are reading about here:

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. [16] For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. [17] And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. [18] And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. [19] For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, [20] and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:15-20)

Summary

Why are we shown this majestic scene? What purpose does it serve? I think that it is clear from the imagery and the words written here that the attributes and reign of God are front and center. God Himself is the chief subject of this text. His sovereign reign over all the created universe is what is clearly portrayed here, and I think when we ponder the throne scene in Revelation 4, we are immediately thinking about reality from the vantage point of God.

What does this mean? Well it means that God is in absolute control of all things. All of the persecution that the church faces, all of the toil that the church endures, all of the rejection and hatred of the world is all seen in contrast the absolute majesty of God. If He reigns, then all things truly do work together for the good of those called according to His purpose (Romans 8:28). If He is in control, then we have no need to fear. If He is sovereign, then we have no call to be anxious about tomorrow (Matthew 6), for He knows all that we need, and will provide and care for us until He brings us home.

Therefore let us continually behold our God. Let us worship him by ascribing to Him all that is due Him. Let us behold and be transformed by what we see in His word. As the hymn says:

Who has held the oceans in His hands?
Who has numbered every grain of sand?
Kings and nations tremble at His voice
All creation rises to rejoice

Who has given counsel to the Lord?
Who can question any of His Words?
Who can teach the One who knows all things?
Who can fathom all His wondrous deeds?

Who has felt the nails upon His hands
Bearing all the guilt of sinful man?
God eternal humbled to the grave
Jesus, Savior risen now to reign!

Behold our God seated on His throne
Come let us adore Him
Behold our King nothing can compare
Come let us adore Him!

Footnotes

[i] Hendriksen, Pg. 84.

[ii] Jim Hamilton, Revelation: The Spirit Speaks to the Churches, Pg. 141.

[iii] Beale, Shorter Commentary, Pg. 102.

[iv] Beale, Shorter Commentary, Pg. 102.

[v] MacArthur, Volume 1, Pg. 149.

[vi] Ladd, Pg. 77, On page 76 Ladd also discusses the fact that the sea seems to remind us of Solomon’s “brazen sea” from 1 Kings 7.

Study Notes: Revelation 1:9-16

Here are the notes from today’s lesson Revelation 1:9-16

The main theme in these verses is the character and appearance of the son of man – there are strong ties to Exodus 19, Daniel 7, as well as Daniel 10 (particularly verse 6), and Zechariah 4 (the lampstands).  I hope you enjoy!

1:9 I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.

Unity in the Kingdom

We have here the obvious beginning of a new section of the text. Now it is John speaking again, and he begins by saying he is a “brother and partner” in their trials – their “tribulation.” He is a partner in both their tribulation and also in the kingdom. If this doesn’t scream, “inaugurated eschatology” I don’t know what does…

John is already enduring tribulation – and he wants them to know that they aren’t alone.

Indeed, John’s humility must have been a great comfort to them. For as John MacArthur says:

John was an apostle, a member of the inner circle of the twelve along with Peter and James, and the human author of a gospel and three epistles. Yet he humbly identified himself simply as “your brother.” He did not write as one impressed with his authority as an apostle, commanding, exhorting, or defining doctrine, but as an eyewitness to the revelation of Jesus Christ that begins to unfold with this vision.[i]

John also reminds them that they are partners, not only in tribulation, but also in “the kingdom.” He is speaking in the present tense, by the way. He is speaking about the kingdom of God, which John considers as already existing and as having been ushered in at our Lord’s resurrection.

Furthermore, he says that he is with them in “patient endurance that are in Jesus.” Endurance that is a fruit of being “in Jesus.” All of these descriptors are modified by this phrase “in Jesus.”

Listen to Beale explain this so clearly:

John and his community are people who even now reign together in Jesus’ kingdom. But this is a kingdom unanticipated by the majority of Jews. The exercise of rule in this kingdom begins and continues only as one faithfully endures tribulation. This is a formula for kingship: faithful endurance through tribulation is the means by which one reigns in the present with Jesus. Believers are not mere subjects in Christ’s kingdom. “Fellow partaker” underscores the active involvement of saints not only enduring tribulation, but also in reigning in the midst of tribulation.[ii]

Hanging Out on Patmos

Next we learn where John is/was when he saw the visions. Most of the commentators seem to think he either wrote part of the vision down on the island, or later afterward.

The island itself wasn’t a very hospitable place. MacArthur describes it as, “a barren, volcanic island in the Aegean Sea, at its extremities about ten miles long and give to six miles wide, located some forty miles offshore from Miletus (a city in Asia Minor about thirty miles south of Ephesus; cf. Acts 20:15-17).”[iii]

Ladd says it was, “a bare, rocky volcanic island with hills rising to about a thousand feet. There are references in Roman literature to support the view that such islands were used for the banishment of political offenders. There is no evidence that John’s exile was any part of a general persecution of the church in either Rome or Asia.”[iv]

Thomas Brooks once used the island to as analogy to the human heart:

Our hearts naturally are like the isle of Patmos, which is so barren of any good, that nothing will grow but in earth that is brought from other places; yet Christ can make them like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters fail not.[v]

We don’t know for certain exactly why John is on Patmos, except that it is in connection with His service to our Lord and likely the spread of the gospel.

1:10-11 I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet [11] saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.”

Lord’s Day

Because of the Lord’s resurrection coming on the first day of the week – Sunday, as we call it now – the people of the early church began to gather in celebration on that day and eat and fellowship together. It is likely that when John refers here to the “Lord’s Day” he is not referring to the scriptural concept of the eschatological “day of the Lord”, but rather to that day which Christ followers had set aside to celebrate their Lord’s resurrection and victory over death and sin.[vi]

That they celebrated the resurrection day was closely tied to their motive to overcome trials. If Jesus overcame, and they were “in” Jesus, then they too could overcome. Jim Hamilton magnificently states that…

Because of the resurrection of Jesus, we can face suffering, imprisonment, testing, and tribulation without fear. Because of the resurrection of Jesus, we can be faithful unto death (cf. 2:20). The resurrection of Jesus guarantees that though we suffer we will not be crushed, though we are tested we will not fail, though we face tribulation we will be preserved, though we die we will rise.[vii]

In the Spirit

Beale notes that John’s use of the phrase “in the Spirit” is similar to Ezekiel’s use of that same phrase to connote a vision from God. He then mentions that behind him he hears a loud trumpet-like voice, which reminds us a little of God’s revelation to Moses. One such example is:

On the morning of the third day there were thunders and lightnings and a thick cloud on the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast, so that all the people in the camp trembled. [17] Then Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God, and they took their stand at the foot of the mountain. [18] Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. [19] And as the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God answered him in thunder. [20] The LORD came down on Mount Sinai, to the top of the mountain. And the LORD called Moses to the top of the mountain, and Moses went up. (Exodus 19:16-20)

When God speaks to His prophets in this way, it seems like there is little room for doubting who it is that is speaking! I might just add there that this isn’t the way in which false angels/demons or Satan speaks. He doesn’t have that majestic presence that God does. God alone is ruler and proclaimed as such by all of heaven. His voice is described by Ezekiel in this way:

And behold, the glory of the God of Israel was coming from the east. And the sound of his coming was like the sound of many waters, and the earth shone with his glory. (Ezekiel 43:2)

We’ll see this same language used in just a few more verses (1:15).

Write What You See to the Churches

John is commanded to write what he sees down in a book. Similar to the OT prophets who were often commanded to write down what they had seen (Beale, for example, cites Ex. 17:4; Is. 30:8, Jer. 37:2 – in the LXX[viii] – and so forth), and often those writing contained judgments toward Israel. So the reader who might have studied the OT might have been already catching a hint of what’s to come by way of judgment (cf. Beale).

Now we see that Jesus has asked John to write all the things he is seeing down on a book or scroll to be sent to these seven churches. We’ve spent some time already discussing the churches, the importance of the number seven, and some of the viewpoints surrounding different views on why these specific churches were mentioned.

One unique view is that the order of the churches mentioned here is significant because it corresponds to a specific time frame in history. This is known as the “historist” view. Once again Beale give a nice overview that I find worth citing in the full:

There is apparently no significant to the order in which the different churches are addressed, although some have attempted to say that it foreshadows the church age after John: the spiritual condition of the seven churches prophetically represents seven successive stages in church history. However, there is no indication of such a prophetic intention nor does church history attest to any such pattern. What is likely is that the number “seven” refers to the church universal in both a geographical and temporal sense and that the conclusion of each letter extends its application to all the churches. Therefore, what we find in the letters is potentially relevant for the church of every time and place.[ix]

I won’t here take the time to describe each church and what we know about them, because we’ll get a chance to look at that when we get to each letter specifically.

1:12-13 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, [13] and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest.

Here John turns around and sees the voice and when he does he sees seven golden lampstands. Later we’ll find that those lampstands are the seven churches. We’ll discuss that more again when we talk about verse 20. But let me just quote from Jim Hamilton on this:

The church is not a building but believers who are “living stones” (cf. 1 Peter 2:5). Zechariah’s lampstand, which symbolized the presence of God in the temple, is fulfilled by the seven lampstands of Revelation, which symbolizes God’s presence in the seven churches to whom John writes. Zechariah’s “two sons of oil,” Joshua the high priest and Zerubbabel the royal descendant of David, are fulfilled in Jesus, who stands among the lampstands as God’s presence in his church. Jesus himself fills the offices of High Priest and High King of Israel. The vision of the lampstand and the two olive trees in Zechariah guaranteed that God would empower the rebuilding of the temple. Similarly, John’s vision of Jesus among the lampstands guarantees that God will accomplish his purpose in the building of the Church.[x]

Then he says that in the midst of the lampstands there was “one like a son of man.” When you hear the phrase “son of man” whom do you think of? Jesus. This was Jesus’ own favorite self-designation and it comes from the book of Daniel, which we’ve seen in previous weeks.

Jesus is described as “clothed with a long robe” and with “a golden sash around his chest.”

I was really interested in why He would be described like this, until George Ladd helped point me in the right direction: “this was the garb of the high priest (Ex. 28:4, 39:29). However, prophets could be similarly garbed (Zech. 3:4), so it is not clear whether this is intended to designate specifically our Lord’s high priesthood, or merely the dignity of his person.”[xi]

Beale mentions that the garb He is wearing could indicate a kingly or priestly function, but because of the scene – which seems to be a temple or church-like picture – the likelihood is that its priestly garb.

The overarching idea seems to be that Jesus is both priest and king. The “son of man” reference connotes Daniel 7’s clear royal kingship emphasis, but the garb is priestly it seems. Thus, like the passage in Zechariah 4 that describes the lampstands, there are two olive trees, one is the high priest and the other is the king. Jesus is both, and walks among his people keeping them secure and ensuring that He will finish the work He began. 

1:14-15 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, [15] his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters.

Now I don’t want to “unweave the rainbow”[xii] here, but let’s concisely examine the descriptors used here of Jesus – many of which are taken from either Daniel 7, or Daniel 10.

The passage in Daniel 10 isn’t one we’ve examined yet. The prophet had a terrifying vision of a man, and, as Jim Hamilton puts it, “Daniels vision have to do with the son of man who receives an eternal kingdom, and in Daniel 10:14 Daniel encountered a man from Heaven who told him that he ‘came to make you understand what is to happen to your people in the latter days. For the vision is for days yet to come.’”[xiii]

The description of this man who spoke to Daniel is found in verses 5 and 6:

I lifted up my eyes and looked, and behold, a man clothed in linen, with a belt of fine gold from Uphaz around his waist. [6] His body was like beryl, his face like the appearance of lightning, his eyes like flaming torches, his arms and legs like the gleam of burnished bronze, and the sound of his words like the sound of a multitude. (Daniel 10:5-6)

So John is greatly influenced in his descriptors by the vision of Daniel. Remember that Daniel was told to “seal up” the vision he saw (Daniel 12:4), whereas John is instructed to not seal up the vision (Revelation 22:10). In other words, as Hamilton says, “what was prophesied by Daniel is fulfilled in Revelation.” [xiv]

Now back to Revelation 1, the white hairs on Jesus’ head are also a picture from Daniel, but in Daniel it is the Ancient of Days (the Father) who has the white hair. Jesus, the Son of Man, is now described in this way. For as Ladd says, John used them (the hair) to show that Christ shares eternal existence with the Father.”[xv]

He has eyes that are described as a “flame of fire”, which Beale and others say could symbolize judgment, though Mounce says, “It expresses the penetrating insight of the one who is sovereign, not only over the seven churches, but over the course of history itself.”[xvi]

Ladd sees both ideas in the description of His eyes and says, “We may conclude that it symbolized omniscience combined with holy wrath directed against all that is unholy.”

The “burnished bronze” feet of the Lord which are described as having been “refined in a furnace” could describe the moral purity of Christ.

1:16 In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.

The idea of Jesus holding the seven stars in his hand we will come back to in a bit when we look at verse 20.

We read that issuing from the mouth of the Son of Man there is a two-edged sword – and its “sharp.” It’s sharpness connotes effectiveness. This isn’t a dull blade – it will accomplish what it seeks to do:

so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. (Isaiah 55:11)

This undoubtedly is speaking of the Word of God. Jesus himself is the Word, and his Gospel goes out among the people of this world and conquers their hearts.

Johnson sees an interesting connection between the two reasons why Israel first wanted a king, and the function of Jesus as Warrior and Judge:

But the people refused to obey the voice of Samuel. And they said, “No! But there shall be a king over us, [20] that we also may be like all the nations, and that our king may judge us and go out before us and fight our battles.” (1 Samuel 8:19-20)

Johnson says, “Although Saul failed to demonstrate either wise justice or courage in battle, David exemplified the king as a bold warrior and Solomon, the king as a wise judge. Yet David and everyone in his dynasty fell short of David’s poetic profile of the perfect ruler (2 Samuel 23:1-7) – until Jesus, the Son of Man, who is supremely wise in judgment and fierce in battle.”[xvii]

Lastly, John says that Jesus’ face was “like the sun shining in full strength.” Undoubtedly this is speaking to the magnificent glory of the Lord Jesus.

I couldn’t help but remember the passage in Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians where he speaks of the reflected glory of the Father onto the face of Moses. Moses’ face would just shine for days after meeting with God. So much so, that he had to wear a veil to keep from blinding the people.

Paul makes a connection between the glory which Moses beheld which was fleeting, and that which we behold in the Word of God, which actually causes us to burn brighter with the rays of the Lord’s light. Of course the key verse in the passage is:

And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. (2 Corinthians 3:18)

And in a way, I think it’s fitting to end this section thinking of this verse because that’s what we’re doing now. We’re beholding the glory of the Lord as mediated through His word.

Sometimes I’m going to be able to make a direct application – especially with the letters to the churches coming up. We’ll be able to examine those and examine our own lives to make sure we’re living in accordance with God’s Word.

However, there are other times, like today, where we are simply “beholding.” We simply read and admire the glory of the Lord knowing that it isn’t a waste of time to meditate on His character and attributes. In fact, it changes us significantly by having an impact on how we view ourselves, His care for us, and His power and care over all history.

Footnotes

[i] MacArthur, Commentary on Revelation, Volume I, Pg. 40.

[ii] Beale, (the longer commentary) Pg. 201.

[iii] MacArthur, Volume I, Pg. 41.

[iv] Ladd, Pg. 30.

[v] Brooks, ‘Smooth Stones Taken from Ancient Brooks’, Pg.’s 5-6.

[vi] See esp. Ladd Pg. 31, and MacArthur pg. 41 for why the phrasing of this indicates John is speaking of “Sunday” and not the eschatological “day of the Lord.”

[vii] Jim Hamilton, Commentary on Revelation, Pg. 41.

[viii] Beale, the longer commentary, Pg. 203.

[ix] Beale, the longer commentary, Pg. 204.

[x] Hamilton, Pg. 46.

[xi] Ladd, Pg.’s 32-33.

[xii] Mounce, Pg. 78.

[xiii] Hamilton, Pg. 47.

[xiv] Hamilton, Pg. 48.

[xv] Ladd, Pg. 33.

[xvi] Mounce, Pg. 79.

[xvii] Johnson, Pg. 59.

Introduction to Revelation: Part 4

The Kingdom of God & the Already Not Yet

Often it is very easy to get caught up in viewpoints about the millennium, and I do not want to detract from the importance of the millennium. For even though the millennium – the 1,000 year reign of Christ mentioned in the first few verses of chapter 20 – takes up a very short space in terms of the book itself, its importance is seen in how we interpret what its saying.

But before we discuss these things specifically, I believe we need to begin our study of this book by briefly examining the nature of the kingdom of God. For when we speak of the “millennium” we’re talking about the Kingdom of God, and specifically the reign of His Christ.

Tom Schreiner says, “Those who participate in the first resurrection will reign with Christ for a thousand years (Revelation 20:6), although the nature of this reign is intensely debated, and scholars differ on whether it refers to the reign of saints in the heaven during the time between the resurrection and the return of Christ or to a reign of the saints on earth before the inauguration of the new heavens and new earth.”[ix]

We can see the importance of this idea of the reign of Christ in how it manages to seep into how pastors and theologians comprehend the overarching theme(s) of this book. For instance, Warren Wiersebe, a Premillennialist, says, “The overriding theme of the book of Revelation is the return of Jesus Christ to defeat all evil and to establish His reign.”   Note how he uses the word “establish” in lieu of the word “consummate” which is the term an amillennialist would use because of the emphasis on Christ’s current reign.

The amillennialist would remind us of verses like we find at the end of Mark’s gospel, “So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19 – also see Ephesians 1:20-23)[i]

Now, most theologians believe that Christ is reigning now, but what is the nature of that reign? I think the difference lies in whether or not one believes that His current reign is somewhat lesser or mostly spiritual (i.e. in the hearts of his people).

Dispensationalist John MacArthur puts it this way:

So God rules spiritually now over the hearts of those who know Him by faith. And that’s been the case since His saving work began. There is a spiritual element of the Kingdom that has existed since God started redeeming men. But this is not that spiritual Kingdom of which we read here, but rather that earthly literal Kingdom which comes at the culmination of human history.[ii]

However, I think that this emphasis on the future nature of Christ’s kingdom does injustice to His victory at Calvary, and does not fully comprehend the fullness of Christ’s current reign.

You can now see the rub, can you not? How we think about the kingdom of God shapes how we view the book of Revelation, and perhaps the millennium question in particular.

The Already/Not Yet

I believe the critical hermeneutical principle which will help us most is called the “already/not yet” principle. In order to understand most of the NT – especially the words of Jesus and the book of Revelation – we need to understand this important principle.

For our purposes, I believe that we need to get our heads around two truths about the nature of God’s kingdom. The first is that it has been inaugurated by Jesus Christ, and will be consummated upon his return. The second is that God is working dynamically in history to bring about the expansion of His kingdom and its final consummation.

Regarding the first truth, it is worth quoting R.C. Sproul at this point at length:

Many professing evangelicals today believe the kingdom of God is strictly in the future, although there is no biblical foundation for that. This view robs the church of important teachings concerning the kingdom that are clearly set forth in the New Testament. In fact, the New Testament opens with John the Baptist’s announcement of the kingdom: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).

Another time the Pharisees asked Him when the kingdom of God would come, and Jesus replied, “Behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you” (Luke 17:21). The kingdom was in their midst became (sic – because) the King was there. In another occasion, He said, “But if it is by the finger of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Luke 11:20).

So John came first with his warning of the radical nearness of the kingdom. Then Jesus came announcing the presence of the kingdom. This was followed by the acme of His redemptive work in the ascension, when He left earth to go to His coronation, where God declared Him King. As Jesus stood on the Mount of Olives, read to depart, His disciples asked him, “Lord will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). They had been waiting for Jesus to make His move, to drive out the Romans and establish the kingdom, but Jesus replied, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).

In answer to their question about the kingdom, Jesus gave the fundamental mission of the church. Men would be blind to His kingship, so His disciples were given the task of making it visible. The fundamental task of the church is to bear witness to the kingdom of God. Our King reigns now, so for us to put the kingdom of God entirely in the future is to miss one of the most significant points of the New Testament. Our King has come and has inaugurated the kingdom of God. The future aspect of the kingdom is its final consummation.[iii]

When Jesus returns it will not be to establish a kingdom, but rather to consummate a kingdom which has been established from before the foundation of the world, and which He reigns over at this very moment.

Indeed the book of Revelation, as we mentioned earlier, was written to assure Christians that He is in control over all things – He is the Lord of history.

Interestingly, Beale thinks that John wrote Revelation with the book of Daniel in mind – especially important in Daniel is the already/not yet function of his literature. Some things were occurring right away for Daniel during his time, while others he saw as distant and far away. Those things which Daniel saw as far away, John saw as fulfilled at least partially in the death, burial and resurrection of the Lord Jesus and the inauguration of his kingdom.

Beale puts it this way:

John probably views the death and resurrection of Christ as inaugurating the long-awaited kingdom of the end times predicted by Daniel, which will now continue throughout the church age.

Side note: for those more advanced in prophetic study or curious about these things, one of the things Beale and other see in Revelation is that at the beginning of some of the major sections/division there is a reference or allusion to something from Daniel chapter two (1:1, 4:1, and 22:6) Beale says that a pattern definitely emerges, “John is employing the same allusion as a literary device to give structure to his whole book.”

This also has ramifications for how we understand the millennium.

Douglass Kelly says, “The exercise of this heavenly authority over all lesser powers is the main thing that is happening in this age between the two comings of the Lord; which, as we shall seek to demonstrate, is the prime meaning of the millennium. The millennium is not a literal period of only one thousand years that will occur much later; rather it is that period of victorious outreach of the Gospel to the nations: a time that last from Jesus’ first coming to his last.”[iv]

All of this can be comprehended by identifying how the Bible speaks about the kingdom of God and the reign of His Christ in other places, and how we are to understand this in light of what we read in chapter 20. Is Jesus’ reign something future, or is it now and to be seen with our eyes in the future? How should we think of, and describe his reign?

This is what R.C. Sproul was speaking of earlier when he said that Christ’s kingdom was “inaugurated” but not yet “consummated.” There are some promises, and some realities that are presently being realized in the church age, yet will not come to their full glory until Christ returns. Our very salvation is like this, for we are saved NOW, yet we have not yet fully realized that salvation. We have the down payment of this reality in the giving of the Spirit, yet not the consummation of this reality in the presence of our Lord and Savior.

The second principle is tied to the first, and it is this: The kingdom of God is “dynamic.” That is to say it is more than just this idea of God separately reigning in heaven, He is working out His will in and amongst us in time and space. He is ruling here – He is involved in our lives – His rule is not detached.

John Frame quotes Geerhardus Vos for us on this matter:

To him (Jesus) the kingdom exists there, where not merely God is supreme, for that is true at all times and under all circumstances, but where God supernaturally carries through his supremacy against all opposing powers and brings men to the willing recognition of the same.

Then Frame says, “On this definition, the kingdom is dynamic, indeed dramatic. It is a world-historical movement, following the fall of Adam, in which God works to defeat Satan and bring human beings to acknowledge Christ as Lord. It is, preeminently, the history of salvation.”[v]

Anthony Hoekema puts it this way:

The kingdom of God, therefore, is to be understood as the reign of God dynamically active in human history through Jesus Christ, the purpose of which is the redemption of God’s people from sin and from demonic powers, and the final establishment of the new heavens and the new earth. It means the great drama of the history of salvation has been inaugurated, and that the new age has been ushered in. The kingdom must not be understood as merely the salvation of certain individuals or even as the reign of God in the hearts of his people; it means nothing less that the reign of God over his entire created universe. “The kingdom of God means that God is King and acts in history to bring history to a divinely directed goal. (quoting Ladd)”[vi]

He goes on to say, “The Kingdom of God involves two great moments: fulfillment within history, and consummation at the end of history.”[vii]

Now given what we know of these two principles, we know that God is both reigning supreme over all, but also dynamically working in and through His creation to bring about His purposes. This points to the linear nature of history – God is working toward something.[viii] What He is doing now in and through us by His Spirit and His Lordship over all history and creation is a shadow of what will be upon the consummation of His purposes.

Christ inaugurated a kingdom (the already) and with that inauguration has brought forth fruit first by His cross work, and now by His Spirit’s powerful work here on earth through the spread of the gospel. One day He will return to consummate His kingdom (the not yet) and upon that return will usher in the visible reality of his reign (the already).

While futurists await a future “literal earthly” kingdom (which we all look for), the way in which we speak about and think about God’s exercise of power and authority over the world, and the souls of lost people is important. I believe its crucial that we understand God as working even now dynamically, personally, powerfully in history and in the lives of men all across the globe to expand his kingdom – a real kingdom of real people.

So you can see how these perspectives function to shape our viewpoint of the book itself and the millennium. But they also shape how we live our lives as Christians – especially what kind of mindset we take toward events here on earth and circumstances in our personal lives.

NOTE: Some of the dispensationalists might argue that God rules “spiritually in the hearts” of men, but not physically here on earth, and does not rule them in any way other than in their hearts. To me this is a false dilemma. The postmillennialist has it right in the respect that when God saves a man, there is fruit and evidence of change not only in that man’s heart, but in his life and in the society in which he lives. To argue a distant futurist reign of Christ is to argue the opposite of how the Bible describes the efficacy of Christ’s work on the cross. He truly is Lord of all and he exercises that Lordship full now, though it is unseen (as Sproul mentions above). I’m not saying that the Postmillennial view is perfect, but their mindset on the nature of the kingdom certainly seems to make more sense and align more Biblically to me.

The Millennium

With this cursory understanding of the kingdom of God under our belts, let us examine the four major views on the reign of Christ in the millennium.

Amillennialism

The Amillennial view (Amil) is probably the simplest of the four major viewpoints on the millennial question.

Wayne Grudem says, “Those who are said to be reigning with Christ for the thousand years are Christians who have died and are already reigning with Christ in heaven…This view is called ‘Amillennialism’ because it maintains that there is no future millennium yet to come.”[x]

John Frame describes it:

The Amil believe that the millennium is now, the whole period from Jesus’ ascension to his return. He emphasizes that the resurrection and ascension of Jesus ushered in a new era of world history. Jesus has now achieved a great victory over Satan, sin, and death…The Amil says that Satan no longer deceives the nations (20:3) as he did before the coming of Christ. Before Jesus came, believers in the truth God existed mainly in Israel. The other nations were deceived by Satan into worship idols. But after the resurrection, the Christian church received power to reach people of all nations with the message of the gospel. And God will continue to empower this mission until the last day, until there are believers from every kingdom, tongue, tribe and nation.[xi]

R.C. Sproul adds…

The Amillennial position, which holds some points in common with both of the premillennial positions, believes that the church age is the kingdom age prophesied in the Old Testament. The New Testament church has become the Israel of God. Amillennialists believe that the binding of Satan took place during Jesus’ earthly ministry; Satan was restrained while the gospel was preached to the world, and this restraint continues today.[xii]

The verses that come to my mind as typically cited in terms of the defeat of Satan are as follows:

The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:17-20)

He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Colossians 2:15)

Frame describes how the Amil views the future…

Amils affirm that toward the end of this era Satan will be released briefly, as Revelation 20:3 indicates (also verses 7-8). He will then deceive the nations again, presumably achieving some measure of his old power. But he will be frustrated and defeated by the return of Christ and the judgment that will result in his final destruction.[xiii]

Amils believe that the first resurrection is simply that spiritual resurrection that has taken place and realized during the intermediate state. The second resurrection is the physical resurrection of the body preceding the judgment when Christ returns. Frame says, “Similarly, the first death is the physical death of human being; the second death is the condemnation of the wicked, a death that believers do not experience.”[xiv]

Postmillennialism 

Most folks who are of the post-mil persuasion also believe that the millennium period of 1,000 years is NOW just like the Amils believe. John Frame notes that some older literature reveals that there are a few Post-mills who have said that is a part of this time now, but more will reside in the future. Post-mills also agree with Amils on the binding of Satan during Christ’s ministry and his release for a short time before Jesus’ return.

John Frame describes the difference between Amils and Post-mills:

Well, although the postmil agrees with the amil that our age is a time of persecution for the church, he also thinks that during this time Christians will come to have more and more influence in general culture. Believers will indeed gain wealth, influence, and even dominance.[xv]

Sproul describes this unique part of Post-millennialism:

What distinguishes postmillennialists from amillennialists and premillennialists is the belief that Scripture teaches the success of the Great Commission in the age of the church.[xvi]

Grudem says, “ The primary characteristic of postmillennialism is that it is very optimistic about the power of the gospel to change lives and bring about much good in the world.”

I must admit that when I study the history of the world since the spread of the gospel, I do not see a uniform trajectory upward toward a world of people who are united in morals and standards. Certainly I believe that since Christ the world has been changed in huge part by the Gospel of Jesus Christ. There is no doubt that the world was in darkness before He came – so much so that every other nation worshiped idols except Israel. Can you imagine if we looked around the world today and every other nation except one the size of Rhode Island worshiped wooden blocks and golden statues? So certainly the gospel has transformed our world.

However, the post-millennial viewpoint was really made popular and caught on prior to the 20th century. It was perhaps at its height at the end of the 19th century when medical cures were being found, the industrial revolution was in full swing, and great revivals had swept across the world many times over the course of the past several hundred years. Then came World War I. The gruesome bloodshed and seemingly worthless outcome was more than conservative theologians could swallow in their assessments of world events and the human situation on earth.

However, not all theologians and pastors had to wait until the bloody events of the 20th century to object to Postmillennialism’s optimistic theology. J.C. Ryle, the great 19th century contemporary of Spurgeon, wrote hinting about this way of thinking:

Let us dismiss from our minds the vain idea that nations will ever give up wars entirely, before Jesus Christ comes again. So long as the devil is the prince of this world, and the hearts of the many are unconverted, so long there must be strife and fighting. There will be no universal peace before the second advent of the Prince of peace. Then, and then only, men shall “learn war no more” (Isaiah 2:4).

Let us cease to expect that missionaries and ministers will ever convert the world, and teach all mankind to love one another. They will do nothing of the kind. They were never intended to do it. They will call out a witnessing people who shall serve Christ in every land, but they will do no more. The bulk of mankind will always refuse to obey the Gospel. The nations will always go on quarreling, wrangling, and fighting. The last days of the earth shall be its worst days. The last war shall be the most fearful and terrible war that ever desolated the earth.[xvii]

The theology fell out of style, yet there are some very smart theologians whom I respect who still hold this theology today. John Frame[xviii] and Keith Mathison both consider themselves Post-Millennial.

I say all that because, while I do not consider myself Postmillennial, I really respect those who take that view, and their arguments are generally very scriptural. They point to many times, both in Scripture and in the time since Christ, when Christian influence has changed the world for the good. They remind us that when Jesus changes someone’s head and heart, those changes lead to changes in our actions which affect the society in which we live.

NEXT TIME…..Premillenialism…..

FOOTNOTES

[i] Ligonier has a devotional published about the kingdom of God which cites these verses in Ephesians: http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/seated-at-gods-right-hand/

[ii] John MacArthur sermon on Revelation 20 (Part 1): http://www.gty.org/resources/print/sermons/66-73

[iii] Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian, Pg. 307.

[iv] Kelly, Pg. 11

[v] John M. Frame, ‘Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Christian Belief’, Pg. 87

[vi] Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, Pg. 45

[vii] Anthony Hoekema, ‘The Bible and the Future’, Pg. 51

[viii] For more on the linear nature of history, see Anthony Hoekema’s ‘Created in God’s Image’

[ix] Tom Schreiner, New Testament Biblical Theology, Pg. 846-847.

[x] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1110.

[xi] John Frame, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1087-1088

[xii] R.C. Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian, Pg. 313.

[xiii] John Frame, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1088

[xiv] John Frame, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1088

[xv] Frame, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1088.

[xvi] Sproul, Everyone’s a Theologian, Pg. 314.

[xvii] J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels, Luke 21:10-19. Here Ryle is discussing the Olivet Discourse and particularly, “Christ’s predictions concerning the nations and the world.” That this important, and sound, theologian and pastor would raise such a warning flag against the post-mil mindset while its popularity was at its zenith is (to me) a very important note.

[xviii] Frame, Systematic Theology, Pg. 1094

Notes on John 18:33-40 – God on Trial Part 2

God on Trial Part 2

18:33-36 So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” [34] Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” [35] Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” [36] Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.”

The Setting

Hendricksen is right that the Evangelist assumes that the reader has had some account already of the goings on here in more detail and is just getting to the point he wants to make – John has an agenda.

In fact, each gospel writer has an agenda. Each one wants to show the reader something about Jesus. Matthew, for instance, wanted to show that Jesus was the Messiah – the one who the Jews had long awaited, the son of David. Luke, writing to gentiles, wanted to show that this Jesus was the Son of God and the Savior of the World. And John’s goal is spelled out in his thesis statement just a few chapters from now:

Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; [31] but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30-31 ESV)

Later in his first Epistle John would write:

I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:13)

These are good things to keep in mind as we’re reading this account. John’s goal is to show us the character of this man, Jesus, and what He came to do.

The Question

Pilate is skeptical of the Jews’ accusations against Jesus. So in order ascertain for himself what the situation is surrounding this man, he takes Jesus into Roman custody and begins to question Him.

The first question that John records for us pertains to His kingship. Hendricksen rightly (I think) notes that the emphasis must be placed on the pronoun “you”, if we’re to understand the thinking of Pilate. To put it into the negative, he’s saying, “You aren’t the king of the Jews are you?”

Surely this meek Jewish teacher isn’t their king! In Pilate’s mind this is a joke.

Jesus begins to answer the question with one of His own – because it’s not as if He can answer this with a simple “yes” or “no.” If He answered “yes” then Pilate would suppose Jesus to mean a political type of king – for that’s what he had in mind when he asked the question. But if Jesus answered “no”, then He would be overstating the case. Answering “no” would almost be to say “in no way shape or form am I king – they have it all wrong.”

So in order to answer the question correctly, He must first qualify the question. That qualification earns a scoff in return.

Pilate’s reply confirms our interpretation of the snarkiness we detect in the first question. He says, “am I a Jew?” In other words, “Do I have anything to do with any of this nonsense? I don’t think like a Jew, I don’t look like a Jew, and my king is much more majestic than what the rabble brought before me today!”

Now there are some really interesting ironies here in these contrasts, and Carson exposes one of them having to do with Pilate’s question “Am I a Jew?”

It is just possible that under Pilate’s question ‘Am I a Jew?’ the Evangelist finds lurking deeper ironies. Pilate despises and distrusts the Jews, yet in the course of the narrative he is eventually forced to adopt their position. Insofar as the Jews here represent the ‘world’, Pilate joins them. And in any case, the reader knows that in a profound sense Pilate’s question really means (though certainly not intended this way by Pilate), ‘Are you my king?’ (Carson, pg. 593, cites Duke).

Pilate then demands of Jesus “what have you done?” In other words, “what is it that you’ve done to rile these detestable Jews to this point? How have you annoyed them so as to have them demanding your execution???”

The Reply

Now we are at verse 36, and the reply of Jesus to the questions Pilate has been asking. He’s had Pilate clarify the question, and Pilate is clearly annoyed, and has replied with derision at the Jews and their idea of kingship. Surely it can’t be this man!

There are so many passages in Scripture where we can look to for evidence of the kingship of Jesus. We look at passages that show His authority, or descriptions of His sovereignty and control over lives and nature and so forth. But perhaps this is one of the passages we overlook.

**I think that in Jesus’ reply there are two things we learn: 1. The nature of the kingdom of Jesus and 2. The purpose for His coming to Earth.

First, the Kingship of Jesus is described here in terms of a “kingdom” – and not just a normal kingdom, but an other-worldly kingdom. His kingdom is not like the kingdoms we’re used to seeing or reading about in books. There are no knights in shining armor. There are no castle walls or protective moats. Missing are the court jesters, friars, monks, dukes, and large gathering of couriers (you can tell I think of “kingdom” in terms of the middle ages!).

Furthermore, the kingdom of Jesus is not situated geographically in a static physical location. And although all the world and its heavens are the footstool of God, for He owns all things and made all things, yet His kingdom is more than simply the physical created order that is visible to us today, rather it includes ALL of the created order including the spiritual realm.

The nature of the kingdom of God has been a topic much debated among theologians, but I would like to read a few comments by pastors and theologians to help us have a better understanding of how the church has understood Jesus’ words here throughout the last 2000 years

Perhaps George Ladd had the best definition. He described God’s kingdom in this way:

The Kingdom of God is the redemptive reign of God dynamically active to establish his rule among human beings, and…this Kingdom, which will appear as an apocalyptic act at the end of the age, has already come into human history in the person and mission of Jesus to overcome evil, to deliver people from its power, and to bring them into the blessings of God’s reign.

Commenting on Ladd’s definition, Tom Schreiner says, “We can say, then, that the kingdom was inaugurated in the ministry and death and resurrection of Jesus, but the kingdom will not be consummated until he returns.”

J.C. Ryle’s explanation on the nature of the kingdom Jesus is describing is great. He says, “It is a kingdom which is neither begun, nor propagated, nor defended by the power of this world, by the world’s arms or the world’s money. It is a kingdom which took its origin from heaven, and not from earth, – a spiritual kingdom, – a kingdom over hearts and wills and consciences, – a kingdom which needs no armies or revenues, – a kingdom which in no way interferes with the kingdoms of this world.”

I love how Ryle remarks that the kingdom of Jesus is timeless. It didn’t have a beginning and it won’t have an end. His kingdom is forever.

Martin Luther expressed this idea well in the final verse of his famous hymn ‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God’:

That word above all earthly powers, no thanks to them, abideth;
The Spirit and the gifts are ours through Him Who with us sideth:
Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still,
His kingdom is forever.

Of course what Luther caught a hold of in this hymn is that the consequence of being united to Christ is that no matter what happens to this body, our place is in heaven with Jesus whose “kingdom is forever.”

This reality is what governs Jesus’ responses. He abides in the truth – the reality that in this moment is hidden from Pilate and the bloodthirsty Jewish leaders.

And though His kingdom is timeless, as Ryle points out, we find in Jesus’ words a hint of the already-not yet character of the kingdom. He was already a king. He had reigned forever with the Father and the Spirit over all that they created. By definition God is king over all because He created all things and therefore has authority over all things.

Yet, the Son, having set aside the privileges and rights ascribed to Him ontologically as God temporarily, still did not deny here before Pilate that He indeed was and is a king – THE King. And His kingdom will one day be consummated in a great and glorious triumph! Oh what a day that will be!

Carson’s comments reinforce what Ladd and Schreiner have to say (and help temper Ryle a bit):

It is important to see ‘that Jesus’ statement should not be misconstrued as meaning that h is kingdom is not active in this world, or has nothing to do with this world’ (Beasley-Murray, pg. 331). John certainly expects the power of the inbreaking kingdom to affect this world; elsewhere he insists that the world in conquered by those who believe in Jesus (1 John 5:4). But theirs is the sort of struggle, and victory, that cannot effectively be opposed by armed might.

And although Pilate does not recognize in sincerity the kingship of Jesus, he certainly would have had He seen Him in His glory just 33 years before, and, of course, he now knows the error of His ways being (we assume?) in eternal torment in Hell.

Therefore, as I mentioned before, these men are blind to the truth, and Paul was right in what he spoke to the Corinthians about the veiled nature of Christ’s glory during His time on earth:

And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. [4] In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. [5] For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. [6] For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. (2 Corinthians 4:3-6)

18:37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world—to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”

The Purpose for His Coming

So first we looked at the nature of the kingdom of God, and now we’re going to look at the purpose of His coming.

When Jesus replies to Pilate that He is a king and rules over an other-worldly kingdom, Pilate responds “So you are a king?” and we can almost assume that the sarcasm is kicking in at this point, as Pilate completely misses what Jesus is saying…though I think he will sober up here soon.

Jesus’ reply is not to simply confirm what He’s already said, but to give Pilate some insight into why He came to earth. Namely, He came to bear witness to the truth. This truth is the truth of God’s plan, and His gospel for mankind. Jesus’ mission is summed up in Luke’s gospel this way:

For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost. (Luke 19:10)

Now, Jesus ends His explanation by stating that, “Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” If you are of the truth, if you have “ears to hear”, then you will listen and understand what Jesus is saying.

Remember that John plays up the contrasts in his book, and one of the biggest contrasts is between light and darkness. Pilate is in the darkness. He can’t understand what Jesus is saying to him. It’s all nonsense to his ears – and that’s why that passage from 2 Cor. 4 that I quoted earlier is so important.

It seems hard to fathom that if you were to stand in the presence of the Lord of Glory that you’d be able to miss that He is God incarnate. Yet many did. They’re eyes were darkened, their hearts were hardened, and they were not looking for the kingdom of God to come in such a remarkable way.

Furthermore, Jesus recognized this and explained this reality throughout the gospels, and we have read a lot of it in John’s gospel. For instance, compare these other instances to what we’ve read just now:

Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. (John 3:5 ESV)

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life. (John 5:24 ESV)

And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, [38] and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. (John 5:37-38 ESV)

Jesus answered them, “Do not grumble among yourselves. [44] No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him. And I will raise him up on the last day. [45] It is written in the Prophets, ‘And they will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me— (John 6:43-45 ESV)

Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. [44] You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. [45] But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. (John 8:43-45 ESV)

We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.” [30] The man answered, “Why, this is an amazing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. [31] We know that God does not listen to sinners, but if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him. [32] Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a man born blind. [33] If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.” (John 9:29-33 ESV)

I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, [15] just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. [16] And I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. [17] For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again. (John 10:14-17 ESV)

The point all of these citations is to show that Jesus has come on a mission to find His sheep, to seek and save the lost sheep, and that before anyone is saved they are in darkness and unable to find their way to the safety of God’s arms. It is Jesus Himself who searches us out, who calls us to Himself, and whose truth must abide in us if we’re to be saved. It is He who sovereignly changes the hearts and minds of men, softening us to His call and His message, and giving us the truth of His gospel which is able to save our souls.

This is the truth He came to hear witness to, this is the truth He proclaims now before Pilate.

18:38-40 Pilate said to him, “What is truth?” After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him. [39] But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” [40] They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber.

Oh the Irony!

Finally, as we wrap up chapter 18 we read of Pilate’s reply to Jesus’ mission statement that He came to hear witness to the truth. Jesus extolls all the great things that we Christians hold dear and Pilate responds with scoffs. He says, “what is truth?”

Of course the irony of this statement/question is that Pilate scoffs at the notion that there is an absolute truth standard to the man who embodies the truth itself and whose character is the basis for the very standard Pilate doesn’t believe exists.

Ryle is perhaps right that this state of mind reflects that which many rich and powerful men throughout every age have held. Pilate has heard of all the many philosophical systems and ideas in his own time and he’s given up even trying to figure out who and what is right. And I think that perhaps in Pilate’s mind, the very fact that he’s having to try a man for a crime that is so obviously absurd is more evidence in his mind that if there is an absolute standard, it doesn’t seem discernable to him or these ridiculous Jews.

The Response of the Jews

Pilate goes back to the Jews now and, not convinced that there’s anything wrong with this man Jesus – for how can he be a king? – says that he’s willing to release Him and chalk it up to their yearly custom of letting a prisoner go.

It’s fitting of the sarcastic narrative I’ve been painting here of Pilate that he continues to call Jesus ‘The King of the Jews’ – in his mind this is meant to denigrate the Jews that they would have such a lowly king.

Now the response of the Jews seals their fates and fulfills the prophecies that they would reject the Messiah, and stumble over the Great Cornerstone of the Church. Their salvation is at hand, and their reply is an enthusiastic call for the release of the robber Barabbas.

Jesus Beats Death

I year or so ago I had the opportunity to teach through John 11 in my sunday school, and recently – this past Monday – I was able to revisit this chapter and spend two hours going through each verse with a lady’s Bible study group at my parent’s home church.  What resulted from this was a rather lengthy exposition of the chapter, but some refreshed notes which I’ve posted below.  My hope is that these notes will be edifying to those who are interested in seeing how this man Jesus had an amazing power during His earthly life.  He was able to do things no man has ever done.  Consequently, many believed in Him.  Still, even His great acts were not enough for some to trust that He was who He claimed to be.

In John 11 this is what happens.  Jesus performs an amazing miracle, and the reaction is quite mixed.  The man who benefits from the miracle has been dead for fully 4 days. The stench of death was likely setting in, and no one ever though of the man coming back to life. Certainly there was a hope for the future – in what Martha terms “the resurrection on the last day”…but what happened next never occurred to anyone present….

John Chapter 11

An Exposition

Introduction

The main thrust of John 11 seems to be two-fold: to show forth the glory and honor of Jesus Christ as the true Son of God, and to show how Lazarus was a type of Christ – remembering that Jesus would soon triumph over the grave to the glory of God in Christ.

Section 1: vs. 1-16 – The Plans of God for the Glory of Christ

Section 2: vs. 17-27 – Abramatic Faith & ‘Ego Eimi’

Section 3: vs. 28-44 – The Sovereign Power of the Son of God

Section 4: vs. 45-57 – Heart of Darkness: The Power of Unbelief

 

Section 1 – The Plans of God for the Glory of Christ

11:1-2 Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. [2] It was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair, whose brother Lazarus was ill.

The Bethany mentioned here is not the one across the Jordan. D.A. Carson gives us the background:

This Bethany, lying on the east side of the Mount of Olives less than two miles from Jerusalem along the road to Jericho, has not been mentioned in the Fourth Gospel before, and must be distinguished from the Bethany of 1:28 and that alluded to in 10:40-42. That is why John characterizes it as the village of Mary and her sister Martha.

John’s editorial note in verse two that “it was Mary who anointed the Lord” helps us understand that John is assuming his readers would have heard of this story from the synoptic gospels. It could also be a literary/stylistic devise he is employing to prime the reader for more to come (namely in chapter 12:3).

11:3 So the sisters sent to him, saying, “Lord, he whom you love is ill.”

Boice makes a good point that the sisters don’t directly make an appeal to the Lord here for help, though that is almost certainly what their goal was…

I do not think that it is fair to say on this basis that no request was implied. Clearly there was the implication that they would like Jesus to come to their aid, and there was certainly the suggestion that he might help them by healing Lazarus. If this is not implied, there was no point even in sending Christ the message. But at the same time, we cannot miss feeling that when they phrased the report as the did – “Lord, the one you love is sick” – they indicated by the form of it that they were seeking his will rather than theirs in the matter.

I suppose it is also necessary to address the fact that some say that by the way Mary and Martha address Lazarus as the one “loved” by Christ, that Lazarus is perhaps the author of this gospel and not John – there are other times, of course, when the author refers to himself as the “beloved” of the Lord.  But this argument unravels in several ways, not the least of which is that the word “love” here is phileo whereas the word the gospel writer uses to describe the Lord’s affection for him is agape.

Lastly, I think what is instructive about this verse is that the Lord spent His days on earth loving others. This was so apparent that it practically dominates the opening sections of this chapter.  Christ called us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:43-48), and to love our neighbor/others (Mark 12:31). He was not a hypocrite in His teaching, He lived out this love – it was this love that motivated His every action and controlled His every move. It was out of love that He was sent to earth in the first place (Eph. 1:5 indicates His will for our adoption as sons).

11:4 But when Jesus heard it he said, “This illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”

The Meaning of “Glorified”

What does it mean that God would be “glorified” through it?  We see that Jesus is saying that the reason why Lazarus has been sick  (at this point he has not died) is so that “the Son of God may be glorified.”

In Scripture there are at least three different ways/modes God can be glorified (generally speaking). First is in the revealing of His character, second is in the reflection of His character (among His people), and third is in the praises/worship/acknowledgement/agreement of His people (which is essentially His people agreeing with Him that He is praiseworthy, that He is great etc.).

It seems that, usually, we think of giving God glory by praising Him. But in this account I believe that Jesus is almost certainly referring to the revealing of His person/deity and not specifically seeking praise. To put it another way, He is not going to do the miracle so that He can receive praises from men, but rather to show men that He is praiseworthy. It is to provide further revelation of His character and being as the true Son of God.

D.A. Carson comments:

…the raising of Lazarus provides an opportunity for God, in revealing his glory, to glorify his Son, for it is the Father’s express purpose that all should honor the Son even as they honor the Father…The Father and the Son are mutually committed to the other’s glory.

Is that not fantastic?! MacArthur also finds this to be the central theme of the text in front of us:

The most important theme in the universe is the glory of God. It is the underlying reason for all God’s works, from the creation of the world, to the redemption of fallen sinners, to the judgment of unbelievers, to the manifestation of His greatness for all eternity in heaven…Everything God created gives Him glory – except fallen angels and fallen men. And even they, in a negative sense, bring Him glory, since He displays His holiness by judging them.

It is this revealing of God’s character through created things, through His plan, and through His Son that we are to focus on here. Specifically, of course, on the revealing of the glory of the Son, which MacArthur says, “blazes in this passage against a dark backdrop of rejection and hatred on the part of the Jewish leaders.”

The great signs (of which this is the 7th and final in John’s gospel) of this book point to the character of Jesus Christ and His true identity as the Son of God. They also provide us with a solid reason for faith in His word and in our future with Him. Likewise, the miracle that we’re about to read of bolstered the faith of the disciples and those who were near Christ. The primary reason for the miracle (to bring glory to God and Christ Jesus) leads to the secondary reason, the bolstering of our faith.

How Lazarus Points Forward to the Pleasure of God in Christ

Certainly one of the most difficult things for us humans to deal with is the truth that God, in His eternal purposes, has allowed, yea even willed, for terrible calamity to befall those whom He loves.  Spurgeon once preached a message on this passage in John and said this:

The love of Jesus does not separate us from the common necessities and infirmities of human life. Men of God are still men. The covenant of grace is not a charter of exemption from consumption, or rheumatism, or asthma.

We see here that God’s purpose was to use the suffering and death of Lazarus to reveal the glory of His Son. And likewise He can use sickness and death in our lives to both refine us (Ps. 119:71), and glorify Himself. His character is certainly made known in many ways through suffering – just think of all the times that men and women who have endured sickness have testified to the great and glorious character of Jesus Christ.

Certainly the most glaring example of suffering and death being used for God’s pleasure is the example of Jesus Christ’s own passion and death.  The story of Lazarus was not included for no reason at all in this gospel. Rather it is put here to point us to Christ, and how Christ ultimately triumphed over the grave.  We’ll talk more about that parallel in the coming texts, but for now I want to see how God was going to be glorified in the death and resurrection of Lazarus, and how He was glorified and even “took pleasure” in the death of His Son (Is. 53:10).  In that Isaiah passage we read:

But the LORD was pleased To crush Him, putting Him to grief; If He would render Himself as a guilt offering, He will see His offspring, He will prolong His days, And the good pleasure of the LORD will prosper in His hand.

It is so difficult to understand how God can possibly have taken pleasure in the “crush(ing)” of His one and only Son. We can see how possibly the Father could be glorified at the end game, but to actually be “pleased” to crush Him…that takes on a whole new difficulty for us.  It’s applicable to what we’re looking at here, because I believe it will show us something of the character of God, and if we can catch a glimpse of that, perhaps we can more rightly appropriate what He is working in our lives through suffering and storms.

John Piper explains this passage in the following ways:

One part of the answer is stressed at the end of verse 10, namely, that God’s pleasure is what the Son accomplished in dying…God’s pleasure is not so much in the suffering of the Son, considered in and of itself, but in the great success of what the Son would accomplish in his suffering.

Piper continues…

The depth of the Son’s suffering was the measure of his love for the Father’s glory. It was the Father’s righteous allegiance to his own name that made recompense for the sin necessary. So when the Son willingly took the suffering of that recompense on himself, every footfall on the way to Calvary echoed through the universe with this message: the glory of God is of infinite value! The glory of God is of infinite value!

…the Father knew that the measure of his Son’s suffering was the depth of his Son’s love for the Father’s glory. And in that love the Father took deepest pleasure.

Scripture supports what Dr. Piper is saying.  Earlier in John’s Gospel we read the following:

“For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again.” (John 10:17)

Piper closes his thoughts on the matter this way:

When Jesus died, he glorified the Father’s name and saved his Father’s people. And since the Father has overflowing pleasure in the honor of his name, and since he delights with unbounded joy in the election of a sinful people for himself, how then shall he not delight in the bruising of his Son by which these two magnificent divine joys are reconciled and made one!

I bring this up is because it shows the deeper purposes of God in Christ for you. We see the same thing here with Lazarus, and we see it in our own lives. Just as He took pleasure in bruising His Son, and takes pleasure in allowing you to face difficult trials for both His glory and for your refinement and sanctifications sake.  He does not glory in your pain, but sees past that and rejoices in the glory to be revealed to you – His glory.

11:5-7 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus. [6] So, when he heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was. [7] Then after this he said to the disciples, “Let us go to Judea again.”

The reason this verse (verse 5) is here is because John wanted to ensure that we understood that Christ’s reasoning in verse four in no way interfered with how we understand verse six.  In other words, it was the love of Christ that compelled him to stay away for another two days, and it was the love of Christ for His Father that motivated His obedience to wait another two days.

Also, it was the love of the Father for us that He allowed Lazarus to get sick because through this He would reveal more of His Son’s glory to His creatures. God reveals Himself to us out of love for us and a desire for us to be ushered into a love relationship with the Trinity as adopted sons and daughters of God.

Specifically, we see in the word “so” at the beginning of verse six, that Christ’s motivation for staying is born out of verse five’s “love” for the Bethany family. This is a bit mind bending, but I think it correlates well with the idea we find in other parts of Scripture that God’s ways are not our ways, and that He does many things that at the time we may not understand.  This could even be discipline or difficulties.

As I was thinking on this passage this week, one of the great passages about love reminded me of Christ’s character here. Take note of 1 Cor. 13:3-7:

Love is patient and kind;

Note the patience of Christ.  He does not rush off to see the family of Lazarus, does not run to comfort them, does not run to perform the miracle. He waits patiently for God’s plan. In His speech to the disciples He is patient and kind.  He abides their foolishness and lack of understanding. He deals with their lack of faith and misunderstanding and selfishness.

love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant [5] or rude.

Perhaps this is obvious, but Christ never boasted in Himself but allowed His truthful teaching, His actions and the testimony of others to glorify Him. Instead of being rude, He is sometimes short and to the point.  But this is not rude.  He is never seen interrupting others, but rather He is always putting others first.

It does not insist on its own way;

We might say that Christ was the one person who deserved to insist on His own way, and yet He submitted Himself to the will of the Father.

it is not irritable or resentful;

Christ was omniscient, and yet the human side of Him never was bitter for what He knew in explicit detail would one day be His demise.  He looked around Himself and was constantly surrounded by incompetence, sin, rejections, and idiotic behavior.  He could have said to Himself ‘I am really dying for this?’ but He did not. Such was the nature of His patience and longsuffering.

[6] it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth.

Christ was never happy when something horrible happened, but often used difficulties to share the good news of the Kingdom (Luke 13:1-5).

[7] Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7 ESV)

Not only did Christ trust in the will of His Father and in the plan they had formulated from before the creation of the world, but He also looked forward in hope (Heb. 12) so that He was able to endure the torment of the cross.

In these ways and many more, Christ is the suffering servant; He is the very heart of love. That is why John can say that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8), because He saw it embodied first hand.

Jesus obeyed the sovereign timing of the Father rather than His emotions.  We know that He was fully human and we know He was emotional (had emotional ties to Martha and Marry and Lazarus) about this situation. But He never allowed His humanity to prevent Him from making absolutely perfect and righteous decisions.  We know His motivation, as discussed earlier, for this was love. He knew the Father’s will; He sought the Father’s mind on all things through prayer.

In our own lives this means that we need to emulate Christ.  We need to ask for His help to change our desires to match His (1 Cor. 2:16).

How many times have you been prevented from getting something, doing something, going somewhere because of situations or circumstances beyond your control?  I’m sure you can look back at times in your life when you wanted so badly to fly here or go there or do this or that but you couldn’t and perhaps as you look back on it now, it was for the better.  Presently, Kate and I would really like to sell our house.  We’d love to move closer to church and to my work. But there are many reasons beyond our understanding that prevent that right now. I do not think that anything is a coincidence or that anything is out of the control and plan of God Almighty.  Therefore I must patiently wait for His plan to unfold even amidst trial. He waited to come to them out of love, remember.

Lastly, and I touched on this a moment ago, in revealing the nature and character of the Son in this moment we also see His sovereignty. The Father has a sovereign plan, and the Son knows that all things are in the hand of the Father – this is illustrated all the more in verse 9.

11:8-10 The disciples said to him, “Rabbi, the Jews were just now seeking to stone you, and are you going there again?” [9] Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours in the day? If anyone walks in the day, he does not stumble, because he sees the light of this world. [10] But if anyone walks in the night, he stumbles, because the light is not in him.”

We should recall that the tension between the Jewish religious leadership in Jerusalem and Christ was at a boiling point at this time. The Jews were so angry and threatened by Christ’s ministry that they were seeking to kill Him.

So when Christ says, “let us go to Judea again” we can perhaps understand the nature of the disciples concern…they knew full well the danger of what Jesus was suggesting.

Carson comments on the disciples’ response “they are frankly aghast.” But Christ’s response is to remind them that as long as the Father still have work for Him to do, as long as there is life in Him, He will continue to boldly (and obediently) carry out His mission here on earth.  The specific meaning, therefore, of, “are there not twelve hours in the day” is to remind them that the fullness of the days work (His ministry) had not yet faded.  “These verses metaphorically insist that Jesus is safe as long as he performs his Father’s will. The daylight period of his ministry may be far advanced, but it is wrong to quit before the twelve hours have been filled up” Carson comments.

This certainly reminds of 9:4 where Christ says, “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work.”  And 9:5 actually ties nicely in with verse 10 here, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

Christ once again uses the situation to remind them of a spiritual truth that He is the light of the world. All goodness, all illumination as far as truth is concerned comes from Him. He is the source of truth and understanding of that truth is also a supernatural gift from God.

Lastly, I am personally reminded of the nature of light and how it sort of symbolizes purity and cleanliness – a sort of antitheses to darkness and sickness. When finally go to be with Christ after this world has been remade and renewed, there will be no sickness and no darkness. In fact, there will be no sun because Jesus will be our only necessary light. Apart from the Son there will be only darkness. These comments foreshadow a truth that is so brilliant and so wonderful that we could linger all day upon their glories.

11:11-15 After saying these things, he said to them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I go to awaken him.” [12] The disciples said to him, “Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will recover.” [13] Now Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant taking rest in sleep. [14] Then Jesus told them plainly, “Lazarus has died, [15] and for your sake I am glad that I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

It wasn’t a terribly common thing in second temple culture to use the euphemism “fall asleep” for death, but if we scan the entirety of Scripture we see it is actually a very common phrase/word overall – especially in the books of Kings and Chronicles (examples: 1 Kings 22:40, 50; 2 Kings 8:24, 10:35)

The Patience of the Son

Interesting how Christ had to explain to the disciples, at this sensitive moment, what He meant by His words. I can just see Him now patiently repeating Himself so as to make them understand His meaning, and I wonder how many other times He had to do this same thing. These are the kinds of things that make lesser men frustrated to the point of boiling over with anger. Not Jesus. He is as patient and longsuffering as ever.  What an amazing display of forbearance.

This really puts me to shame. I like to think of myself as a patient man – except, of course, when the kids or the co-workers, or someone (anyone) else has really pressed my nerves or my buttons repeatedly. Only then do I feel like I have an “excuse” to lose my temper.  This, to my own shame, was not the example of Christ.

So that You May Believe

The main thing we should take note of in these verses is that what Christ was doing was for the purposes of bringing glory to God (as mentioned earlier), and the phrase above “so that you may believe” does not modify that purpose or even add to it, but rather it explains more specifically how He will be glorified. These are not two separate items. Believing in the Son glorifies God because it gives proper due to who the Son is, and it magnifies Him.

John wrote this entire book for this purpose (John 20:30-31), and Christ’s entire mission was centered on this fundamental goal.  I hope that anyone reading this now understands that Christianity is all about Christ. He is the center of the Bible and indeed of all human history. Life (of the abundant kind) is about believing in Him, in placing full confidence in His words and surrendering to His leadership and direction.

Christ knew that He was going away soon. He knew that soon His great passion would be upon Him. Before He endured the cross, He wanted to shore up the faith of those disciples who had for so long been following His words and His teaching. He knows that they might not fully understand His words, but He knows that His words will never pass away (Matt. 24:35).  He knew that millions and millions of Christians would read these words and meditate on His character, and bring Him glory.  Remember, He is not speaking to those who do not believe, but rather to those who love Him. But He wants them to have utmost confidence that He is who He says He is, and so that for years to come they would look back on this moment and fall on their faces with thanksgiving in their hearts.

11:16 So Thomas, called the Twin, said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

Duty vs. Joy

Thomas is called “Didymus” in the Greek, which means “twin” – Thomas is Hebrew for “twin” as well…though no one really knows who his twin was.

I think that so often we underestimate Thomas.  This is the same man who we call “Doubting Thomas”, but we see here that there is more to this man than simply cynicism (though that certainly seems to be a dominant characteristic of his nature).  He has a strong courageous streak about him, and the fact that he was willing to die for/with Christ says a lot (even though we see later that, like the other disciples, he deserts Jesus).

Mostly, though Thomas might be brave – and we can admire that in him – he is also following as a rule. It is his duty, one might say. Ridderbos says, “He is certain the to go to Judea means death for them all. Not following Jesus obviously did not occur to him as an option. But his willingness to join Jesus was a matter of accepting the inevitable, clearly without understanding anything of the joy of which Jesus had spoken, to say nothing of being able to share in it.”

Jesus went to the cross because He knew the joy that was set before him (Heb. 12:1-3), but Thomas went (in his mind) to his death because it seemed like the only dutiful thing to do. While I greatly admire Thomas’ bravery and loyalty, I also want us to see that we follow Christ not out of a motivation toward blind duty, but a “duty” that is motivated by the love He has shed abroad in our hearts (a key concept in ch.15), and for the joy that lies before us in eternity.

The Precipice

This also sets in sharp relief once again just how dangerous it would have been for Jesus to go back to the Jerusalem area.  This is the moment in which life and death decisions are being made.  Christ could either stay beyond the Jordan and enjoy a vibrant ministry (10:40-42), or He could fulfill the will of the Father and accomplish His ultimate destiny and mission here on Earth.  He could save His own life, or the lives of countless millions.  Had He been but man, a mere mortal born as all other men, there’s no way we’d be even discussing this right now. The choice would be obvious. No man would put themselves in harms way like this (almost certain death) for the lives of people who weren’t his family. Ironically, Christ did this very thing in order make those who weren’t His family part of His family by sovereign adoption.   

 

Section 2 – Abramatic Faith & ‘Ego Eimi’

11:17-20 Now when Jesus came, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb four days. [18] Bethany was near Jerusalem, about two miles off, [19] and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them concerning their brother. [20] So when Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, but Mary remained seated in the house.

It was about a one-day journey from where Jesus was ministering across the Jordan River to Bethany near Jerusalem. If Jesus had heard the news, then waited two days, then taken a day to travel to Bethany, that means that by the time the messenger arrived at Jesus Lazarus would have already been dead. This is important to note simply because we see by this timeline that Christ, knowing all that was going on here, did not kill Lazarus by not coming right away.  It isn’t as though His staying away had any affect on the situation materially. I think that is significant because if nothing else, it shows us once again how Christ in His sovereignty and His obedience to the Father’s plan stayed and waited for a specific reason (which we discussed above) and not to put Lazarus through some struggle unnecessarily or sadistically.

The second thing I want to note here is that Martha is the one who comes running to Jesus when word reaches their home that the Lord is on His way, and is nearing the village.

The reason I think this is significant has to do with what we know from other scriptures about Martha.  Martha was the one who was “busy with much serving”, so busy that she didn’t have time to sit and learn at the feet of Christ.  I don’t want to read more into this than is there, but Martha strikes me as a woman of action.  She is always on the move always doing something, she’s a “type A” personality.  So perhaps its only natural for her to sprint out to see the Lord.

But I think we might safely infer from this passage that Martha’s priorities have shifted from ones that are “busy” and self-centered, to ones that are Christ-centered. The old Martha might have said “I need to stay here and be with my sister.” This Martha realizes the centrality of Christ.  This truth is revealed further in the next few verses…

11:21-22 Martha said to Jesus, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. [22] But even now I know that whatever you ask from God, God will give you.”

As we look at Martha’s response to the presence of our Lord it seems at first blush that she is placing a tremendous amount of faith in Him, and indeed her faith here is a beautiful thing.  She unashamedly states that, in her opinion, if Christ had been with Lazarus, he never would have died.  “Jesus” she reasons “would never have allowed my brother to die.”

She is not scolding Christ for not being there, but neither is she showing the kind of depth of faith that I first confess I saw. I thought I saw an Abrahamic type of faith – a gigantic faith.  But that is not the case as we’ll see later on, for when Christ approaches the tomb and asks that the great stone blocking its entrance be removed, Martha protests that there would be a stench!

Why is this?  Well I think its because it probably never occurred to her that Christ could or would  raise someone from the dead…perhaps her mind never got that far.  It wasn’t that she was full of despair, as we see in verse 22, for she knew that one day her brother would rise in Christ.  But she didn’t yet comprehend the power of the man she knew as Jesus.  She didn’t yet understand that this man Jesus was not just the Messiah sent from God, He was the Author of life.  The Man standing before her was the one who’s words sent cosmos flying into existence.

Abraham’s faith was of another variety altogether.  Look at how the author of Hebrews describes the faith of Abraham:

By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, [18] of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” [19] He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back. (Hebrews 11:17-19)

You see Abraham understood the nature of God and His will and His power. He was able to grasp the fact that since God controlled both life and death, that God could just as easily raise his son from the dead as he could bring him to life in the womb of a 100-year-old woman.

This is a more informed faith.  It isn’t that Martha’s faith is wrong, it is simply not matured, it simply hasn’t grown into a full-orbed understanding of the character and nature and power of who God in Christ is, and what He is capable of doing.

This, consequently, is why we study theology.  This is why we study the character of God. Because when we face the most extreme circumstances that this life can throw at us, we can do so with a full understanding that the one who walked on the earth and felt our pain and our suffering and our daily irritations is the same One who calmed the storm on the Sea of Galilee, is the same one who rose from the grave, and is the same one who will one day defeat ALL death and sickness and famine to His own praise and glory.

11:23-24 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” [24] Martha said to him, “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.”

Is it not significant that Martha had a better understanding of the resurrection than the Sadducees?  Now it may seem odd to us, who do not have the full picture of the Jewish culture, that Martha would even know such a thing.  But it isn’t a strictly New Testament teaching.  In fact it was common knowledge that there would be a resurrection of the dead on the day of the Lord.  However, as I just mentioned and have mentioned before, the Sadducees were the most secular (if that’s an appropriate word for it) leaders the Jews ever had.  They didn’t believe in the afterlife or in the spiritual realm.

I like how MacArthur points out that Martha seems to have faith that Christ can and will raise her brother on the final day, but doesn’t seem to connect the possibility of Him having the power to raise her brother now. I think there’s something to this.  So often we mentally ascent to God’s power to do this or that, because we’ve read it in the Bible, but we don’t ever think to apply it appropriately to our lives, as if He is somehow neutered of His power 2000 years later.

But this is not the case. God is the same yesterday, today and forever. His power is immutable, as are all His other qualities.

11:25-26 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, [26] and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?”

Here is another one of the great I AM saying of Christ (the 5th one, if you’re keeping track).  This time He says that He is the “resurrection and the life” – this means that Christ raises us from spiritual death to spiritual life!  What a fantastic claim!

This is really a continuation of the New Birth discussion He had before with Nicodemus in chapter 3.  When Christ says that He is the resurrection and the life, He isn’t saying anything new, He is reiterating that life, true life, comes from Him and Him alone.  He has been given all power by the Father to execute His life-saving mission here on earth (see chapter 5).

In this phrase Christ is claiming that, not only does He have the power to raise lost souls from the dead, but He has a plan for them after that – we were saved from something, but also for something.  Consider Ephesians 2:8-10:

For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, [9] not a result of works, so that no one may boast. [10] For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:8-10)

We were saved “for good works” – not simply from death, but for good works.

Truths We Must First Ascent To…

Is there a phrase that more encapsulates the mission of Christ than this? He is the resurrection and the life, and those who believe that will “never die.”  Could He have been any more blunt than this? YOU WILL NEVER DIE.  Let that reality sink in!

There is such power in this phrase and in this truth. But we need to acknowledge a few things first before this truth can be true there are other truths that we have to ascent to:

  1. That we are all dead spiritually
  2. That we cannot, on our own, raise ourselves from this death
  3. That we need and depend on the life-saving life-giving power of Christ to raise us from the dead and that He does this of His own initiative
  4. That Jesus Christ is the sole source of this power – He is claiming exclusivity here. He doesn’t say, “I am a resurrection” He says He is “the” resurrection!

What Everyone Must Wrestle With…

Lastly, look at what Christ says at the end of His great claim – He asks the question: Do you believe this?  This is the one question that every human being will eventually have to wrestle with. There is no one here that has not had to face up to this question.  We need to all ask ourselves at some critical point, “Do I believe this?”  If the answer is “yes” then you know that Christ is your resurrection and your life. What a wonderful feeling and a wonderful knowledge that is.

11:27 She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

This so much reminds me of Peter’s great confession when Christ put a similar question to Peter that He just asked Martha.  Here’s how the exchange went:

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” [14] And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” [15] He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” [16] Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:13-16)

We are told that this is what saving faith looks like.  Paul says this in Romans 10:

…because, if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. [10] For with the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved. [11] For the Scripture says, “Everyone who believes in him will not be put to shame.” [12] For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him. [13] For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:9-13)

What is it that Martha is acknowledging here?  A few things…

  1. The Lordship of Jesus Christ – not only over the world and all created things, but over her life
  2. His deity – “you are the Son of God”
  3. That He is the one who can take away sins – He’s the savior of the world (“Christ”)
  4. That He is working out His sovereign plan in the world and in her life and she is surrendered to that plan – “who is coming into the world”

These are the words and component parts of a person whose heart has been miraculously changed by the Holy Sprit.

 

Section 3 – The Sovereign Power of the Son of God

11:28-29 When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” [29] And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him.

It is significant to me that her first reaction is to run and find her sister. It reminds me of when the early disciples of Christ ran to find other followers in John 1 (35-51). When someone’s heart is touched by the words of Christ they want to immediately go and tell others of the experience and bring them near to Christ.

The second thing I think is notably here is the reaction of Mary – she “quickly” rose up and went to find Christ. This reminds me of Philip and how he quickly and immediately obeyed the Spirit in Acts 8.  This is a trait of a true follower of Christ.  When we are called to His side, when we are asked to do something, do we obey?  Or do we hesitate?  Do we run to our master, the healer, the Lord?  Or…do we stay in our homes sobbing over a loss or a heartache. Mary, as stunned and hurt as she was by the loss of her brother ran quickly to find Jesus.  May we do the same.

11:30-32 Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. [31] When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. [32] Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Mary’s faith responded in an identical way to Martha’s from the earlier verse. She was so confident in the power and Lordship of Jesus Christ that she announced confidently that if He had been there Lazarus wouldn’t have died.  “Jesus you are so powerful, so profoundly majestic, so good, so gracious and so loving, that if you had but been here in our presence You could have stopped this tragedy from occurring.”

They were not appealing to some false idea that Christ would have singled out their brother, or that He played favorites. Rather they knew the character of this man Jesus. Jesus practically overflowed with love. He healed so many people that John couldn’t even imagine writing down all the incidents (John 21:25). He was giving, giving, giving His entire life!  All He did was serve – He came to serve Mark 10:45)!

It’s a major clue into how Jesus behaved around others. These women knew the heart of Christ so well, that for them there was no doubt that had He been there, His love would surely have spilled out over their brother. “That’s just who He is”, they probably thought. Their hearts loved His heart.

This explains how we ought to behave – exuding the love of Christ – and how we will be distinguished from the world:

By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:35)

11:33-37 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. [34] And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” [35] Jesus wept. [36] So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” [37] But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”

The response of Jesus comes to us packaged in the shortest sentence in Scripture. John simply says, “Jesus wept.”  But we also read that when Jesus hears what Mary has to say, his spirit is “greatly troubled.”  His “troubled” soul is noted at two different points in this passage.

What does this response mean? There are two primary ways to view this:

  1. He has compassion for his sheep, for His children.
  2. He is sorrowful over the unbelief of the people – as in Luke 19:41-44.

I believe that both views are correct.  Let’s take one at a time…

Compassion for His Sheep

If these verses don’t show you something of the humanity of Christ, then you are not reading the same text I am reading.

Mary is in tears – not simply a small stream of tears, she is weeping. She is weeping for her brother, but also because she has been stirred again emotionally by the presence of Christ. It’s now been several days since her brother died, and Jesus’ appearance has opened the wells of her sorrow, and she bursts forth in tears. The love she has for Jesus, and the painful reality of her loss are intersecting in a mass of emotion that simply cannot be held back.

I believe John recorded this incident for a reason. He knew the impact of these verses. John is concerned to show that Christ Jesus understands our pains, He understands our sorrows. But more than that.  He doesn’t simply understand it – for we could well believe that He understands it being, as He is, a all-wise all-knowing God – but He also empathizes with us.  He enters into our sorrows with us.

We are well familiar with the precious words of Hebrews 4:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. [16] Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:15-16)

Personally, when I look at how the Lord identifies with us, I marvel to myself that we have such a loving God.  A God who could have sat back and ruled the world from on high, but instead who chose to come down to us.  He came down here, and He entered into our toil, our frustrations, and our tears.  He knew what it was to walk on this earth. He knew what it was to lose a loved one.

I love the fact that He has identified with us in our suffering. I love the fact that angels and all God’s elect children can look at the cross and say, “see how He loved them!

More “Trouble” than Meets the Eye…

MacArthur makes a good point about the Greek word used here that is often translated “troubled” is actually more accurately understood as “sternly warned” or “scolding” in terms of the feeling it conveys.  The word is actually embrimaomai, which literally means, “snort like a horse!”  The idea here, as MacArthur says, “includes a connotation of anger, outrage, or indignation.

The Lord was upset on several levels.  The scene is a complex one.  He is not simply in tears for His dear friend and the family of Lazarus, but also for a world whose response to death is not fully defined by the realities of God. Jesus came to usher in a kingdom whose power would forever be emblazoned on the lives of His followers to the point which death would be no match.

And, as we see in verse 37, the reaction of these people to Jesus’ weeping is one of unbelief – not trust and faith. That verse helps us understand why Jesus was so indignant.

The Impending Victory

You see, death here seemed to have the last say, and the attitude of defeat among the mourners smacked of Satan. It showed off his blinding power that these people would have no hope in the reality of glorious nature of the world to come. Christ came to change all of that. And when He saw the people mourning with no hope for tomorrow, He was indignant. This is why His raising Lazarus from the tomb was a major sign (A major wake up call to Satan also) of the ushering in of His kingdom – this was the warning shot across the bow of Satan. He’d be put on notice that His defeat was imminent. Satan’s days are numbered, for the Prince of Life is here, and He will allow no more deception about the truth of God’s plan for eternity.

Consequently, that’s why He was so poignant in His remarks about eternity earlier. An important part of the gospel is the hope for eternity with God. (We saw the contrast for example between the hope of Christ in the joy to come, and Thomas’ duty-bound devotion in verse 16). There is the hope of forgiveness now on earth, of course, and of forgiveness and Christ’s righteousness imputed to us – which we will hear from God’s mouth on that Day of Judgment. But more than that, there is this beautiful hope of eternity with the Lover of our soul. And that’s what this is about. This is about Christ setting the record straight. It’s about Him giving us a preview of the rest of our lives.

Perhaps that’s what is so beautiful about this chapter.  Jesus gives us a preview of what the consummation of His mission will look like when He comes back. The sadness we endure now is like that of Mary and Martha. We weep because we are dying and we live in a dying world. We have loved ones with cancer. We have children who are sick. We have pains and ills and death all around us. So did Christ. So that will make the victory all that much more sweeter when we enter into His presence and He banishes death and sickness once and for all!  That is why we say: “Come Lord Jesus! Come!”

11:38-40 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. [39] Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” [40] Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”

Here we see that once again Christ is “moved” again, and it’s no wonder given the nature of the response from those in the mourning party (he is filled with a righteous indignation as the Greek clearly implies…again, the English translations are all incorrect).

Martha’s response to Christ’s instruction is one of unbelief – this is what tempers us from having been led to believe she had the kind of faith that Abraham had (see above).

SIDE NOTE: D.A. Carson talks about how some of the Jews thought (superstitiously) that the soul of a body hovers above the body for three days prior to finally departing. So waiting four days to raise Lazarus from the dead would have crushed their superstitions. I love how Christ’s perfect timing crushes our doubt and shows us that He alone holds the keys to truth and life.

The Revelation of His Glory and how it Transforms Us

We see in Christ’s response to Martha that He isn’t concerned about the odor of Lazarus, He’s more concerned with the revelation of His glory.

This revelation of His glory is the key – and as I mentioned before, Martha is not going to see the glory of Christ in the way that the disciples did on the Mount of Transfiguration, but rather she will see His revealed character, power, and person pouring out through His majestic work of resurrection.

I want to add some thoughts about the practical purposes of understanding this concept of Christ’s glory and what it has to do with us.

In 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 we read the following:

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. [18] And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

We see here that there is a transformational effect from simply “beholding the glory of the Lord.”  John explains in his epistles that:

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)

So there is this connection again between us being transformed, and us beholding Him in His glory.

For the longest time I didn’t understand exactly how this worked. What is the connection here between us becoming like Him and us beholding Him?  It’s hard to read 1 John and really put your finger on how that will happen – but we can look to how it happens in inches during our lifetimes here on earth – and that’s exactly the purpose of what Paul was writing in 2 Corinthians, and why Christ came to raise Lazarus from the grave in John 11.

How is it that we behold His glory here?  We behold His glory because we see His revealed character in His actions and words, and the Holy Spirit uses this Scripture to touch and transform our hearts.  This is a supernatural thing. This is why we can’t “earn” our way to heaven because we can’t make ourselves righteous!  Our doing is our beholding.  And we behold by reading, by praying, and by asking for Him to change us into the image of Christ, which He is gradually doing.

This is the nitty-gritty of sanctification, and its also why reading the Bible and meditating on Christ’s actions here and every word that proceeds from His mouth, is so important.  That’s consequently why I teach expositionally!  I want you to be changed into the likeness and image of Christ. He’s using this Word to do that.  He’s using John 11 to do that, so I want you to take in as much of it as possible, knowing not only that He is using it to gradually melt away the dross of this life, but that one day (as we wait in faithful hope – see Rom. 8) He will radically finish the job simply by the great revelation of His character and person

11:41-42 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. [42] I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.”

Carson points out that this was not a public prayer meant to “play to the gallery” but rather He sought to “draw His hearers into the intimacy of Jesus’ own relationship with the Father” and “demonstrates the truth that Jesus does nothing by Himself, but is totally dependent on and obedient to His Father’s will.”

There are a few parallels between this prayer and the High Priestly prayer in chapter 17, but the one that stood out to me the most was how the Father and Son had already been (obviously) in previous communion.  It seems that they had already agreed upon raising Lazarus, and that now Christ is thanking God the Father for “hearing” Him and for granting this miracle so that He may be glorified that people might believe.

Every time we hear Christ pray, or instruct us in prayer, we ought to pay close attention.  For this is His insight and instruction as to how to communicate with God, of whom He is One with the other two persons of the Godhead.  Surely He knows more than anyone how to speak with His Father.

11:43-44 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” [44] The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

There are several key points that we see here.

First, the “divine imperative”, as Augustine termed the creation of the world, is seen here in Christ’s powerful control over the life and death of His creatures.  We see that not only is this man the Messiah whose long awaited and desired coming had finally arrived, but he is the very Son of God who called creation into existence millennia prior to this moment.

Second, Lazarus’ rising from the dead was a sign of greater resurrection to come, especially that of Christ’s resurrection which was now only a short time away, and of course of our own resurrections once Christ comes again.  And it was also a sign that Jesus was who He claimed to be. Earlier in chapter five, Christ said this:

But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me. (John 5:36)

Third, the power of Christ is on full display in this amazing moment. D.A. Carson notes how some theologians remark that this power seemed to be so awful (awe-inspiring) that had He not specified the name of “Lazarus” that all dead people everywhere would have had to obey His fiat. This is a clear example of Christ calling us from the dead, and the irresistible nature of that call. His grace is so powerful and so effective, that when He calls you, He will not fail in His mission to bring you all the way from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light.

Lastly, as Christ raised Lazarus from the dead, it was a clear indication that the kingdom of God was upon them. Christ was ushering in His spiritual kingdom in a way that no man could deny. George Ladd once said that, “…the Kingdom of God is the redemptive reign of God dynamically active to establish his rule among men, and that this Kingdom, which will appear as an apocalyptic act at the end of the age, has already come into human history in the person and mission of Jesus to overcome evil, to deliver men from it’s power, and to bring them into the blessings of God’s reign The Kingdom of God involves two great moments: fulfillment within history, and consummation at the end of history.”

 

Section 4 – Heart of Darkness: The Power of Unbelief

11:45-48 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what he did, believed in him, [46] but some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. [47] So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. [48] If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”

The Power of Unbelief

The reaction to the miracles of Christ is always of interest to me. It amazes me that some who were eyewitnesses of people being healed, and others, like Lazarus, being raised from the dead can cause such different reactions.

Morris comments, “The result of the miracle, as always, is division. Because Jesus is who and he is he inevitably divides people.”

Specifically, it is interesting that some people ran to the Pharisees…Carson says, “One might charitably hope that the motive of at least some of them was to win the Pharisees to the truth, but the contrast set up between those who believe and those who go to the Pharisees suggest that their intent was more malicious.”

Ryle says that these people who ran to the Pharisees had been hardened in heart, “Instead of being softened and convinced, they were hardened and enraged. They were vexed to see even more unanswerable proofs that Jesus was the Christ, and irritated to feel that their own unbelief was more than ever inexcusable.”

This only serves to reiterate the tension Christ was causing within the Jewish establishment, and show forth that miracles alone are not able to soften a man’s heart, “the plain truth is, that man’s unbelief is a far more deeply seated disease than it is generally reckoned” says Ryle.

Only the sovereign grace of God will melt these hearts of stone.

It’s emblematic of the kind of thinking we find in the Jewish leadership of the day that fear governed their thoughts.  And when fear governs your thinking, it’s very difficult to make wise discerning decisions (spiritual or otherwise).

For instance, here they make the false assumption that if Jesus would have continued His ministry that “everyone (would) believe in him.”  This is simply not the case – for even those who saw and witnessed His miracles, including this one, first hand did not believe Jesus was the Messiah.

In fact, if the council knew the miracles were authentic (which it seems that they did) they ought to have followed Jesus.  It wasn’t enough to say “these are the miracles of Pharaoh’s magicians”, but the very reason that the men in vs. 46 came to the Council in the first place was due to the overwhelming evidence before them.  I cannot believe that at this point, for these men, there was much doubt as to the veracity of the miracle(s); the issue was what to do about it. Their murderous response reveals the wickedness of the hearts of these men, and confirms that they were of their Father the Devil (see chapter 8, and Gen. 3:15).

The truth is that unless God does a supernatural work in your heart you will always be dead in your sin and will always rebel against God.  Earlier in John we read Jesus’ words to Nicodemus:

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)

Another example of this is found in Acts 8 where we read the case of Simon Magus who was amazed by the miracles being wrought by the disciples of Jesus – so he “believed” in Jesus. But seeing and intellectually assenting to the reality of God’s power doesn’t make you a child of God. What is missing?  The heart change that only comes by new birth.  Only the Holy Spirit can effect that change in a man’s heart.

Ryle says, “The amazing wickedness of human nature is strikingly illustrated in this verse. There is no greater mistake than to suppose that seeing miracles will necessarily convert souls. Here is a plan proof that it does not.”

Political Problems

Once the Jews learn of this latest miracle, their main concern seems to be a political one.  They said, “The Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”  They were concerned that the Roman leadership would be disturbed by the commotion of the Jewish citizenry and the potential consolidation of power behind a rebel leader (namely Jesus).  If the Romans, they calculated, thought that there was an uprising among the people, they would move to squash it immediately – perhaps even scatter the Jews and drive them from the land in order to save them the headache of dealing with them as a nation.

What is amazing here, and Sinclair Ferguson talks about this a little, is that we see the Pharisees and Sadducees saying what are “we” going to do about this.  This indicates to us the outlook of the Council’s situation, that even these two groups that hated each other felt the need to work together on this. “They felt like they had to crucify Jesus in order to keep their place in society” Ferguson pointedly states.

11:49-53 But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. [50] Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” [51] He did not say this of his own accord, but being high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the nation, [52] and not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad. [53] So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.

The opening blast from Caiaphas is (according to Carson) the ancient equivalent of saying “You don’t know what you are talking about!”  Both Carson and MacArthur note how rude this is and Carson is funny here:

“Even so, it is certainly not a reflection of the Dale Carnegie school of diplomacy, and it nicely confirms the judgment of Josephus that the Sadducees were barbarous and wild even toward those of their own party…”

But as Caiaphas gets their attention, he continues on with an idea that is devious and characteristic of his political acumen (he lasted 18 years as high priest which was quite a feet during that time – was deposed at the same time as Pontius Pilate in AD 36).  But what Caiaphas meant to say, and what God used Caiaphas to say here were obviously two different things, and perhaps a little more than irony.

Caiaphas was more astute politically than those around him, and what he was trying to explain here was that if they (the Jewish leadership) played their cards right, they could sacrifice Jesus on the alter of politics and have for themselves a scapegoat to be able to show to the Romans – as if to say to them “hey this man is the one responsible for all the hubbub around Jerusalem, if you get rid of him we’ll all be a lot better off and you won’t have to worry about anyone causing disruptions.” In this way Caiaphas figured he could satiate the Roman authorities growing unrest with the disruptions among the Jewish people.

As Sproul points out though, Caiaphas must have forgotten Proverbs 17:15, which says, “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.”

Caiaphas’ cold political reasoning seemed shrewd – the ends justified the means. But what Caiaphas didn’t realize (in his “unconscious prophecy” as Morris aptly puts it) is that it was indeed expedient for one man to die for the nation – a scapegoat covered not with the political excuses of sinful men, but with the weight of their sins upon Him.  For as Paul tells us:

Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned—[13] for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. [14] Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. [15] But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. [16] And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. [17] For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. [18] Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. [19] For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. [20] Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, [21] so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:12-21 ESV)

It is amazing how God uses the mouths of even the ungodly, or those whom ought to seemingly be uninvolved in the fate of God’s people, to proclaim the great plan He has for His people. His sovereignty led even a pagan king to bring the Jewish people out of exile several hundred years earlier.  Listen to what God put in the mouth of Cyrus:

Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, that the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah might be fulfilled, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he made a proclamation throughout all his kingdom and also put it in writing: [23] “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth, and he has charged me to build him a house at Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever is among you of all his people, may the LORD his God be with him. Let him go up.’” (2 Chronicles 36:22-23 ESV)

Furthermore, God’s plans were bigger than just the Jewish nation, for John tells us, “not for the nation only, but also to gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.”  That is to say that it was God’s plan that through the death of Jesus the promise of Abraham might be fulfilled:

“Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. [5] No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations. [6] I will make you exceedingly fruitful, and I will make you into nations, and kings shall come from you. [7] And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. [8] And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” (Genesis 17:4-8 ESV)

 And…

And the angel of the LORD called to Abraham a second time from heaven [16] and said, “By myself I have sworn, declares the LORD, because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, [17] I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, [18] and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice.”(Genesis 22:15-18)

Therefore God used His Son Jesus Christ to die for the sins of His people – His chosen people, a holy nation, a people called after His own name. And in so doing He was not simply dying for a Jewish people, but for a people He had chosen from the foundation of the world.  He was going to use His disciples to proclaim this gospel of peace to all the nations in order that He might “gather into one the children of God who are scattered abroad.”

This process of spreading the gospel and blessing the nations through the spread of the gospel is the same as gathering into one the children of God, because when a person believes in Christ they are united with Christ and are adopted into His family. Sproul says, “It was a blessing that Jesus died, because His death was necessary for the salvation, not only of Jews, but of the elect of the whole world.”

Resorting to Death

It is emblematic of the hand of Satan on these men that their best plan is to find a way to put Jesus to death. For that is the way of Satan.  When all else fails, kill the person who stands in his way.

Make no mistake, Satan desire nothing more than to kill you (Gen. 3:15 speaks of enmity between us and Satan), though his spiritual power is significantly limited now that the gospel has been unleashed upon the nations, he still rules this world.  John tells us of this later:

…and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while. (Revelation 20:3 ESV)

Therefore, because he no longer has the power of the last word spiritually, he will do everything he can to make your life miserable and ultimately rejoices in your death – for that is all he has left.  It is a testament to the grace and power of God that we are protected from the wiles of the Devil and that is why your prayers of intercession for each other are so crucial, for God works through your prayers to thwart the enemy.

11:54-57 Jesus therefore no longer walked openly among the Jews, but went from there to the region near the wilderness, to a town called Ephraim, and there he stayed with the disciples. [55] Now the Passover of the Jews was at hand, and many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves. [56] They were looking for Jesus and saying to one another as they stood in the temple, “What do you think? That he will not come to the feast at all?” [57] Now the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that if anyone knew where he was, he should let them know, so that they might arrest him.

John MacArthur tells us that Ephraim “was located about four miles northeast of Bethel on the edge of the wilderness, and about a dozen miles from Jerusalem.”

The people prepared for the Passover, and many wondered if there’d be anymore drama – they were looking for the fireworks, they didn’t truly care about Jesus for just a short time later they would shout for His crucifixion.

So Jesus withdrew for a time in order to prepare for the final chapter in His ministry, where He would once again enter Jerusalem, this time for the last time before His grand passion that would serve as the atoning sacrifice for millions and millions of His followers for generations to come, effectively changing the world forever.

Conclusion

This 11th chapter of John’s gospel reveals to us the power and glory of Jesus Christ.  It shows us His deity, His majesty, His obedience to the Father and His love for us.  It also shows that Jesus has power over the grave – and the same Christ who raised Lazarus from the snares of death has also raised us to walk in newness of life, has given us His Spirit as a powerful guarantee of His love, and will one day consummate His union with us by raising our bodies to be glorified in everlasting service to their great Bridegroom.

Study Notes 2-10-13

John 11:28-44 – The Raising of Lazarus

11:28-29 When she had said this, she went and called her sister Mary, saying in private, “The Teacher is here and is calling for you.” [29] And when she heard it, she rose quickly and went to him.

It is significant to me that her first reaction is to run and find her sister. It reminds me of when the early disciples of Christ ran to find other followers.  When someone is touched by the words of Christ and their heart is captured by God, they want to immediately go and tell others of the experience and bring them near to Christ.

The second thing I think is notably here is the reaction of Mary – she “quickly” rose up and went to find Christ. This reminds me of Philip and how he quickly and immediately obeyed the Spirit in Acts 8.  This is a trait of a true follower of Christ.  When we are called to His side, when we are asked to do something, do we obey?  Or do we hesitate?  Do we run to our master, the healer, the Lord?  Or…do we stay in our homes sobbing over a loss or a heartache. Mary, as stunned and hurt as she was by the loss of her brother ran quickly to find Jesus.  May we do the same.

11:30-32 Now Jesus had not yet come into the village, but was still in the place where Martha had met him. [31] When the Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary rise quickly and go out, they followed her, supposing that she was going to the tomb to weep there. [32] Now when Mary came to where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet, saying to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”

Mary’s faith responded in an identical way to Martha’s from the earlier verse. She was so confident in the power and Lordship of Jesus Christ that she announced confidently that if He had been there Lazarus wouldn’t have died.  “Jesus you are so powerful, so profoundly majestic, so good, so gracious and so loving, that if you had but been here in our presence You could have stopped this tragedy from occurring.  They were not appealing to some false idea that Christ would have singled out their brother, or that He played favorites.  What was on their heart and their mind here was what they knew of Jesus: absolute love. Jesus practically overflowed with love. He healed so many people that John couldn’t even imagine writing down all the incidents. He was giving, giving, giving His entire life!  All He did was serve!  He came to serve! Incredible how these women knew the heart of Christ so well, so for them, this wasn’t a big mystery. If Jesus had been there, His love would surely have spilled out over our brother. “That’s just who He is”, they think. Their hearts loved His heart.

11:33-36 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. [34] And he said, “Where have you laid him?” They said to him, “Lord, come and see.” [35] Jesus wept. [36] So the Jews said, “See how he loved him!”

Compassion for His Sheep

If these verses don’t show you something of the humanity of Christ, then you are not reading the same text I am reading.

Mary is in tears – not simply a small stream of tears, she is weeping. She is weeping for her brother, but also because she has been stirred again emotionally by the presence of Christ.  It’s not been several days since her brother died, and Jesus’ appearance has opened it all over again and she bursts forth in tears. The love she has for Jesus, and the painful reality of her loss are intersecting in a mass of human emotion that simply cannot be held back.

And Jesus sees this and his spirit is “greatly troubled” and He too begins to weep.

Why is this His response?  It is because of the love He has for His sheep. His compassion for His children is evident here in these verses.  I believe John recorded this incident for a reason. He knew the impact of these verses. John is concerned to show that Christ Jesus understands our pains, He understands our sorrows. But more than that.  He doesn’t simply understand it – for we could well believe that He understands it being, as He is, a all-wise all-knowing God – but He also empathizes with us.  He enters into our sorrows with us.

We are well familiar with the precious words of Hebrews 4:

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. [16] Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Hebrews 4:15-16)

More “Trouble” than Meets the Eye…

MacArthur makes a good point about the Greek word used here that is often translated “troubled” is actually more accurately understood as “sternly warned” or “scolding” in terms of the feeling it conveys.  The word is actually embrimaomai, which literally means, “snort like a horse!”  The idea here, as MacArthur says, “includes a connotation of anger, outrage, or indignation. Jesus appears to have been angry not only over the painful reality of sin and death, of which Lazarus was a beloved example, but perhaps also with the mourners, who were acting like the pagans who have no hope.”

So the Lord was upset on several levels.  The scene is a complex one.  He is not simply in tears for His dear friend and the family of Lazarus, but also for a world whose response to death is not fully defined by the realities of God. Jesus came to usher in a kingdom whose power would forever be emblazoned on the lives of His followers to the point which death would be no match.

You see, death here seemed to have the last say, and the attitude of defeat among the mourners smacked of Satan. It showed off his blinding power that these people would have no hope in the reality of glorious nature of the world to come.  Christ came to change all of that.  And when He saw the people mourning with no hope for tomorrow, He was indignant.  This is why His raising Lazarus from the tomb was a major sign (A major wake up call to Satan also) of the ushering in of His kingdom. It’s a blast on the trumpet, it’s a major red flag to the enemy that his time has come and his days are numbered, for the Prince of Life is here, and He will allow no more deception about the truth of God’s plan for eternity.

Consequently, that’s why He was so poignant in His remarks about eternity earlier.  A large part of the gospel is the hope for eternity with God. A big part of the gospel has to do with what happens after death. This is what gives us hope.  There is the hope of forgiveness now on earth, of course, and of forgiveness and Christ’s righteousness imputed to us – which we will hear from God’s mouth on that day of judgment.  But more than that, there is this beautiful hope of eternity with the Lover of our soul.  And that’s what this is about. This is about Christ setting the record straight. It’s about Him giving us a preview of the rest of our lives.

Joined with Christ

Furthermore, because we are one body, and have been united with Christ as His bride, just as He enters into our sorrows and pains, so we too are called to enter into His sorrows as well. We identify with His sufferings and remember that just as He persecuted we shall also be persecuted.

I think it’s so important to remember that we are joined with Christ. We receive the benefits of this – justification, righteousness, and eternal life – but we also are going to be persecuted for identifying ourselves with Christ.

Personally, when I look at how the Lord identifies with us, I marvel to myself that we have such a loving God.  A God who could have sat back and ruled the world from on high, but instead who chose to come down to us.  He came down here, and He entered into our toil, our frustrations, and our tears.  He knew what it was to walk on this earth. He knew what it was to lose a loved one.

I love the fact that He has identified with us in our suffering. I love the fact that angels and all God’s elect children can look at the cross and say, “see how He loved them!

The Impending Victory

But what is perhaps most beautiful about this chapter is that He gives us a preview (as I mentioned above) of what the consummation of His mission will look like when He comes back. The sadness we endure now is like that of Mary and Martha. We weep because we are dying and we exist in a dying world. We have loved ones with cancer.  We have children who are sick. We have pains and ills and death all around us. So did Christ.  So that will make the victory all that much more sweeter when we enter into His presence and He banishes death and sickness once and for all!  That is why we say: “Come Lord Jesus! Come!”

11:37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man also have kept this man from dying?”

This is a statement of confusion and perhaps doubt.  It’s hard to say without having been there, but one thing is obvious and that is that these people had no clue about the plans of God, or the ways of God. Their statement reveals a doubt that is probably part of what Christ was angry (“troubled”) about. Their unbelief in the sovereignty of God and their anxiety over the death of their friend is exactly what Satan would have wanted – it’s a reflection of a world that was lost in sickness and death, mired in a world without hope – at least that seems to be their perspective.

11:38-40 Then Jesus, deeply moved again, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone lay against it. [39] Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” [40] Jesus said to her, “Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?”

Here we see that once again Christ is “moved” again, and it’s no wonder given the nature of the response from those in the mourning party (he is likely still filled with a righteous indignation as mentioned before).

Martha’s response to Christ’s instruction is one of unbelief – this is what tempers us from having been led to believe she had the kind of faith that Abraham had (see above).

SIDE NOTE: D.A. Carson talks about how some of the Jews thought (superstitiously) that the soul of a body hovers above the body for three days prior to finally departing. So waiting four days to raise Lazarus from the dead would have crushed their superstitions. I love how Christ’s perfect timing crushes our doubt and shows us that He alone holds the keys to truth and life.

The Revelation of His Glory and how it Transforms Us

We see in Christ’s response to Martha that He isn’t concerned about the odor of Lazarus, He’s more concerned with the revelation of His glory.

This revelation of His glory is the key – and as I mentioned before, Martha is not going to see the glory of Christ in the way that the disciples did on the Mount of Transfiguration, but rather she will see His revealed character, power, and person pouring out through His majestic work of resurrection.

I want to add some thoughts about the practical purposes of understanding this concept of Christ’s glory and what it has to do with us.

In 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 we read the following:

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. [18] And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

We see here that there is a transformational effect from simply “beholding the glory of the Lord.”  John explains in his epistles that:

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2).

So there is this connection again between us being transformed, and us beholding Him in His glory.

For the longest time I didn’t understand exactly how this worked. What is the connection here between us becoming like Him and us beholding Him?  It’s hard to read 1 John and really put your finger on how that will happen – but we can look to how it happens in inches during our lifetimes here on earth – and that’s exactly the purpose of what Paul was writing in 2 Corinthians, and why Christ came to raise Lazarus from the grave in John 11.

How is it that we behold His glory here?  We behold His glory because we see His revealed character in His actions and words, and the Holy Spirit uses this Scripture to touch and transform our hearts.  This is a supernatural thing. This is why we can’t “earn” our way to heaven because we can’t make ourselves righteous!  Our doing is our beholding.  And we behold by reading, by praying, and by asking for Him to change us into the image of Christ, which He is gradually doing.

This is the nitty-gritty of sanctification, and its also why reading the Bible and meditating on Christ’s actions here and every word that proceeds from His mouth, is so important.  That’s consequently why I teach expositionally!  I want you to be changed into the likeness and image of Christ. He’s using this Word to do that.  He’s using John 11 to do that, so I want you to take in as much of it as possible, knowing not only that He is using it to gradually melt away the dross of this life, but that one day (as we wait in faithful hope – see Rom. 8) He will radically finish the job simply by the great revelation of His character and person: His glory.

11:41-42 So they took away the stone. And Jesus lifted up his eyes and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. [42] I knew that you always hear me, but I said this on account of the people standing around, that they may believe that you sent me.”

Carson points out that this was not a public prayer meant to “play to the gallery” but rather He sought to “draw His hearers into the intimacy of Jesus’ own relationship with the Father” and “demonstrates the truth that Jesus does nothing by Himself, but is totally dependent on and obedient to His Father’s will.”

There are a few parallels between this prayer and the High Priestly prayer in chapter 17, but the one that stood out to me the most was how the Father and Son had already been (obviously) in previous communion.  It seems that they had already agreed upon raising Lazarus, and that now Christ is thanking God the Father for “hearing” Him and for granting this miracle so that He may be glorified that people might believe.

Every time we hear Christ pray, or instruct us in prayer, we ought to pay close attention.  For this is His insight and instruction as to how to communicate with God, of whom He is One with the other two persons of the Godhead.  Surely He knows more than anyone how to speak with His Father.

11:43-44 When he had said these things, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out.” [44] The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips, and his face wrapped with a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.”

There are several key points that we see here.

First, the “divine imperative”, as Augustine termed the creation of the world, is seen here in Christ’s powerful control over the life and death of His creatures.  We see that not only is this man the Messiah whose long awaited and desired coming had finally arrived, but he is the very Son of God who called creation into existence millennia prior to this moment.

Second, Lazarus’ rising from the dead was a sign of greater resurrection to come, especially that of Christ’s resurrection which was now only a short time away, and of course of our own resurrections once Christ comes again.  And it was also a sign that Jesus was who He claimed to be. Earlier in chapter five, Christ said this:

But the testimony that I have is greater than that of John. For the works that the Father has given me to accomplish, the very works that I am doing, bear witness about me that the Father has sent me. (John 5:36)

Third, the power of Christ is on full display in this amazing moment. D.A. Carson notes how some theologians remark that this power seemed to be so awful (awe-inspiring) that had He not specified the name of “Lazarus” that all dead people everywhere would have had to obey His fiat. This is a clear example of Christ calling us from the dead, and the irresistible nature of that call. His grace is so powerful and so effective, that when He calls you, He will not fail in His mission to bring you all the way from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light.

Lastly, as Christ raised Lazarus from the dead, it was a clear indication that the kingdom of God was upon them. Christ was ushering in His spiritual kingdom in a way that no man could deny. George Ladd once said that, “…the Kingdom of God is the redemptive reign of God dynamically active to establish his rule among men, and that this Kingdom, which will appear as an apocalyptic act at the end of the age, has already come into human history in the person and mission of Jesus to overcome evil, to deliver men from it’s power, and to bring them into the blessings of God’s reign The Kingdom of God involves two great moments: fulfillment within history, and consummation at the end of history.”