When we last looked at Revelation, we saw the worship of God's church in the first verses of chapter 14, and saw how beautiful our worship is in the sight of God. It was a lovely picture; very encouraging.
Someone might ask, though: what is needed for my worship to be part of that? What makes Nigel's imperfect singing, someone else's half hearted worship, another person's feeble attempts at living for Jesus acceptable in His sight?
In this following passage, we're reminded again exactly what we need to know to answer that question, as we listen to the words of five beings. Most of them contribute different aspects to the message, and what they say can be thought of as like you're standing at an intersection, deciding whether to take an uphill path or a downward one and listening to advice. The first two speakers tell us about the two directions we can take - the two allegiances we can have, and the last two speakers tell us about the outcome of each direction. As they do so, they leave us in no doubt about which way they want us to go, and what makes us part of that beautiful choir we saw in the previous verses.
John says the first messenger is directly overhead, calling him and us, if you will, to consider that uphill path and where it leads. Verses 6 and 7:
Then I saw another angel flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people. 7 And he said with a loud voice, “Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgement has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.”
Notice the different aspects to these verses:
The messenger has good news (for that's what gospel means) that has no best before date and is something for everyone who dwells on earth. We live in a world full of expiry dates and segmented markets. Pain killers claim to be targeted at joint pain or muscle pain, even though they work in exactly the same way. And those same pills, together with bottled water and far too many other things have an expiry date. The gospel that this messenger of God proclaims to us has no such limitations. While there are people dwelling on this earth, it will be a message they can hear and need to hear. It doesn't matter whether a DNA test would say we're direct descendants of Abraham, or came wholly from other descendants of Noah. This good news is good news for you and for me.
And the good news is a call to fear God - to recognise that He, more than any other being in existence is worthy of respect and adoration, because it is He who designed the creation before anything existed, who merely spoke in order to make everything, who still upholds everything in existence by His power, and rules with wisdom and might, working all things for the glory of His name and the good of His people, ensuring that nothing in all creation can separate His people from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. It is He who will judge us all and determine our eternal fates. Fear Him. It is good news because it is a call to know the reason for which you and I were made, a call to rise above mediocrity and self centredness and purposelessness to true and lasting comfort, joy and peace.
But don't put it off. Notice that the passage says "the hour of His judgement has come". As Reverend Zuidema has been preaching through Romans, he has proclaimed to us the fact that God is already judging the people of earth. "The wrath of God is revealed from heaven", Romans 1:18 and following proclaim.
There is nothing more important, nothing more lasting, nothing more worthwhile than knowing and loving and honouring our creator and our judge. Putting anything else in first place in our lives is both robbing God of the place He deserves and robbing ourselves of comfort and joy and security, perhaps even of salvation.
What is the alternative to fearing God and giving Him glory? If we don't belong to God, we belong to the beast. If we don't listen to the message the first angel proclaims and take the uphill road, we take the downhill road and head in the direction of the beast and its image.
This takes us back to chapters 12 and 13, where we saw the dragon (representing the devil) attacking the church but failing, failing again and failing a third time before bringing a new character - the beast - into play. Chapter 13 told us that this beast was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation and all who dwell on earth will worship it, (do those words sound like something we read in our passage?) - everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain. Chapter 13 finished with a second beast appearing, and among other things causing all - both small and great, both rich and poor, both free and slave, to be marked on the right hand or the forehead with the name of the beast or a number representing its name.
Chapters 12 and 13 show us an enemy of God who has great power, but who is also severely limited - especially when it comes to Christians. Verse 8 of our passage calls the enemy of God "Babylon" for the first time in Revelation, and using words that we'll hear expanded upon later on. It also tells us a new way in which this beast ruled over those who don't belong to Christ - making all nations drink the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality.
The picture that Revelation is giving us has not changed since those earlier chapters. The downward road might be an easier path initially, and it might have more people going along it, but it is the loser's path. "Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great".
And it's not just a loser's path for the beast.
If you and I reject God, if we worship and serve the creation rather than the creator, the message of the third messenger is a message for us:
If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand, 10 he also will drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night, these worshippers of the beast and its image, and whoever receives the mark of its name.
Back in chapter 3, verse 12, the Lord promised to write on those who conquer the name of the Father and the name of the city of God, and Jesus' new name, as signs of their allegiance and belonging. In the same way here, the mark of the beast is a mark of ownership, of being under his rule. This is why having that mark can be an indication of your fate.
And what a fate!
Back in verse 8, we read that Babylon made the nations drink "the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality". That same "wine of the passion" phrase is repeated in verse 10, though it's translated a little differently. The importance of this repetition is that it highlights the intensity of what is being talked about here, and even more so when we read that God's wrath is poured full strength - undiluted! - into the cup of his anger. Here our minds should certainly go back to what Jesus has done for those who are saved - to Him praying in the garden "Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me", and to the fact that even God the Son had an angel appear from heaven, strengthening Him (Luke 22:43) as he prepared to drink from that cup. Is it any wonder that Hebrews tells us "It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God!" (10:31). Those who suffer this fate are not to be envied, just on the basis of this first consequence of worshipping the beast and its image and receiving its mark of ownership.
But this first consequence isn't the whole picture.
The passage continues, warning that such people will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. The phrase "fire and sulfur" is probably better known to us as "fire and brimstone", and alludes to the judgement on Sodom and Gomorrah, mentioned in Luke 17 using the same words. It will be mentioned again in chapter 20, as the final destination of the devil, the beast and the false prophet. We might find it easy to argue that they should end up in a lake of fire, but we might also ask - or be asked - "Is it fair for those who reject God to end up there, and even if that's fair, do the holy angels and Jesus Himself have to gloat over them then?"
It's important to note that nothing in the passage talks about gloating. Yes, the angels and our Lord are certainly approving of the punishment that's given. They're saying it's just and right, but that doesn't mean they rejoice in the punishment being given.
We also need to remember that every human being is without excuse before God. As we've seen in Romans, we all have written on our hearts the Law of God. None of us are ignorant, just as none of us are innocent. We simply choose not to take seriously the warnings God gives us, and reimagine the consequences of rejecting God as if they're nothing to worry about. AC/DC, at various points in "Highway to hell" sing - as if hell is something to rejoice in (and I'm picking phrases out) "Living easy, living free ... asking nothing, leave me be... don't need reason, don't need rhyme. Ain't nothing I would rather do. Going down, party time. My friends are gonna be there too. Hey mama, look at me. I'm on my way to the promised land... I'm on the highway to hell".
But it won't be party time. "The smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night..." It will be weeping and gnashing of teeth - an eternity of "I wish I'd done differently", "I wish I'd listened" and "I deserve this, even though I don't like admitting it".
This is reflected in the application that follows. It's not "Christian, look at those nasty people and rejoice in their suffering". No. What was implicit in verses 4 and 5 last time is clearly spelled out in verses 12 and 13: You and I who call ourselves Christians, who read these books and hear these words are given again a call to think about these things and make sure we act appropriately:
"Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus".
At the start of this sermon, we asked the question "What is needed for my worship to be part of that beautiful, heavenly choir?" The answer is right here. Like so many times in Revelation already, implicitly and explicitly (1:3, 1:7, 1:18, chapters 2 & 3, 5:1-5 etc), Christians are called to read, to hear, to obey, to keep our first love, to repent, to conquer, to open the door to Christ and more. The description of what happens to those who reject Christ is given to warn us, lest you or I decide that being a Christian is too hard, or not enough fun, or in some other way not worth the effort. If we want to be part of the beautiful choir, all we need to do is endure, keeping the commands of God and faith in Christ.
None of this denies for a moment the fact that Jesus said "Apart from me, you can do nothing" or the many other verses that emphasise the sovereignty of God. What is said here simply emphasises the other side of the coin - the fact that part of the way in which God sovereignly works His plans and purposes is through the effort we put in to persevering in relying on Christ and living like we rely on Christ. Don't give up, and know that not giving up is possible because of God's grace toward you.
Two mores voice are to be heard. But this time it's not one of God's servants who is named. It's God the Holy Spirit Himself. How few are the times in the Scriptures where the Spirit speaks like this - so easily we can think of Him as an impersonal "it". But here is one of them. The Spirit replies to an unnamed voice who tells John to write "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.", affirming that statement: "Blessed indeed, that they may rest from their labours, for their deeds follow them!"
And with those words, we are reminded and assured by our God that our struggles on this earth will not continue forever. Day by day, we are all getting closer to the point where either the Lord will return or we will go to be with Him. We are all getting closer to the day when (Rev 21:3ff) the dwelling place of God is with man; when He will dwell with us, and we will be His people, and God Himself will be with us as our God. [We are all getting closer to the time when] He will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither will there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things will have passed away.
A day when we will sing like we've never sung before.
All we need to do to get there, by God's grace, is persevere - keep the commands of God and our faith in Jesus.
Come Lord Jesus! Blessed be Your Name!