This is the word of the Lord. If you are not in Revelation 11, go ahead and grab a Bible out of the seat back in front of you or your own Bible. It is so good to see you all. As we are journeying through the Book of Revelation, if you need an outline raise your hand. It’s page 1034 if you’re using a seat Bible, 1034.
David McCullough is one of our nation’s premier historians. In his latest book, “The Pioneers,” McCullough tells the story, both the good and the bad, of the settling of the Northwest Territory. This was the land that John Adams negotiated from the British as a part of the Treaty of Paris in 1783 ending the Revolutionary War. This land eventually became Wisconsin, Michigan, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and parts of Minnesota.
One of the companies that was formed in order to purchase the land to sell to settlers was known as the Scioto Company, named after the Scioto River. This company sent a lawyer, Joe Barlow, to France in order to market the land. And he hired William Playfair to help him. Always beware of someone who is named Playfair. Barlow and Playfair produced a “prospectus” (in order to advertise the land) that was not completely honest. When you read this, the climate, for example, they described this way: “wholesome and delightful, frost even in winter almost entirely unknown.” When they talked about the hunting, they emphasized the fact that there was plenty of venison and no predators, like wolves and other predators. No taxes, beautiful rivers and hills. They somehow forgot to mention the blizzards, the smallpox, the starvation, or the fact that several Indian tribes obviously still considered that their land.
But in 1789 France was plunging into the chaos of the French Revolution. When someone comes and offers a pain-free promised land on the “blissful banks of the Ohio,” that seems irresistible. Sales skyrocketed, and in 1790 the first group of 600 French immigrants sold everything, risked everything, traveled three months over the ocean, only to find out that they had been defrauded. Scioto Company didn’t own any land, and William Playfair disappeared with their money. Eventually another company helped them get land and settle, but these immigrants were completely unprepared for the hardships they would experience in the American frontier. Most of them were French artisans or artists or watchmakers or even some noblemen. They had never used a gun, cut down a tree, or skinned an animal. Some of the local settlers tell a story of six of these Frenchmen gathered around a tree and trying to cut down the tree like a bunch of beavers, only to have the tree fall and crush two of them.
It’s the classic case of false advertising. But in order for false advertising to be successful, it has to have a lot of truth. And a lot of what they said about that region was true. It’s stunningly beautiful, amazing rivers, so much potential, but it was only half the truth.
And this is what I fear many people in general, but even evangelicals specifically have. Their view of Christianity is only half the truth. It is grace without law. Very few understand the vital role of the law in order to tutor, schoolmaster us to Christ, both prior to salvation and even as believers, how the law points us back to the grace of Christ. It is forgiveness without repentance. It is comfort without conviction, security without suffering, prosperity without sacrifice, life without death, heaven without hell.
Think about last week when John was commanded to eat the scroll, the scroll representing the book of God, the purposes of God. And when he ate it, it was what to his mouth? Sweet. And then it was what to his stomach? Bitter. He ate the whole thing, the sweetness and the bitterness, because he was eating all of God’s message that he was to live and proclaim. Jesus is not like the Scioto Company. He speaks plainly. Have you noticed that? It’s one of the things I love about Jesus. He speaks plainly and honestly. He tells his followers that “You are going to go down with me and up with me, but I will never ever leave you or forsake you.”
In the first chapter our church ever studied almost 28 years ago, Matthew 10, when we were a tiny little group. We really meditated a lot on the verse, Matthew 10:25, “It is enough. It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher.” In other words, they hated Jesus. They will, at times, hate us. They resisted, rejected, persecuted Jesus. They will, at times, resist, reject, persecute us. But what Jesus does, that you will not hear anywhere else, is the way he brings together things that seem incompatible. Let me give you an example in Matthew 10:28.
“And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.”
Have you ever heard anyone talk like that? Don’t be afraid. They can only kill you. They will only gun you down and drag your body through the streets. They will only poison you, lie about you, spit on you, reject you. That’s all they can do. Don’t fear them. Why would you fear them? Because you’re of more value. Do see where he ended? He ended with your value. He described their vulnerability. Now for us that feels incompatible, right? If I am that valuable, God, why would you let this happen to me? If I’m valuable, you’ll never let me go through anything hard. That’s a proof of my value. That’s the way we view it, right? And Jesus says, “You are valuable. Come with me. Go down with me. Come up with me. Your life will take on the same shape my life took on. It’s what it means to follow me.”
Many more examples here. Let me just give you one other example. John 16:33,
“I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace. [in me, absolute security] “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world.”
I have overcome. Absolute security, intense suffering.
Last week in chapter 10, John sealed up the seven thunders, ate the scroll, modeling true prophetic ministry, highlighting the fact that we don’t know everything. That’s the whole sealing up the seven thunders. But what we do know, the eating the scroll, we consume. It becomes a part of us, part of our DNA. It is absorbed into our system, and it is transformative. In chapter 11 today John is going to vividly portray the life cycle of a prophetic witness. And I’m going to resist the temptation to explain all the debates of interpretation, which I know will frustrate some of you. But I’m serious, it would take us days to walk through all the various interpretive questions of this passage, and I’m going to try to model for you what I call a back from the future, back from the future interpretation. What I mean by that: the present is seen through the future. While the images we see, in this chapter for example, have some specific fulfillment in the future, their communication is relevant today.
Let me show you an example from another writing of John that may illustrate what I mean by back from the future. 1 John 2:18 (on the screen),
“Children, it is the last hour.” [Think about it. John wrote this 2000 years ago and he was saying,] It is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming. [Future, antichrist is coming.] So now, [John is writing] many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. [You see this present fulfillment does not negate the future fulfillment, but it transforms the way we interpret today what is happening.] Therefore, we know that it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us.”
The future is shaping the way we interpret what is happening today. What we’re going to see today in Revelation 11, I believe, has some specific future fulfillments, and we can debate that all day. But what I’m going to put the accent on is today. Right now, just like the first readers who were suffering as a church. How would they have read Revelation 11? And I want to do that today the same way.
Let’s look at the prophetic witnesses. Number 1, they were prepared. Prepared. In verses 1-3 there are three “givens.” Three times the Greek word “didomi,” which means “to give,” is used in verse 1, 2, and 3. Let’s look at those three. First of all, a measuring rod is given to John. This is a long, hollow reed. What is John measuring? He is measuring the temple of God. Who or what is that referring to? I believe that is most immediately referring to the people of God, the church. How do we know that? Well, look at the whole New Testament. The early Christians would have understood this instinctively. 1 Corinthians 3:16,
“Do not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.”
2 Corinthians 6:16,
“For we are the temple of the living God.”
Ephesians 2, Jesus is described as the cornerstone, and upon that cornerstone we are being built together into a “dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”
1 Peter 2:5,
“You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, [a temple] to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.”
Notice here we are both temple and priest, offering ourselves on the altar of sacrifice this chapter is describing. Why the measuring then? Well, when you purchase a piece of property it is always surveyed, and you get those wooden stakes with the little orange on them. That is communicating possession, presence. This is mine. These are the boundaries. Protection. I am responsible for the well-being of this.
Notice the second given. The outer court, verse 2, is given over to the nations. The church is, verse 1 – secure, verse 2 – vulnerable, to be trampled by the nations for a time. Remember this whole section of Revelation I’ve described as the ultimate sting operation. For 42 months, a limited time, God allows evil to flourish. Just like the 3-1/2 years of drought during the days of Elijah. Just like the time, times and a half in Daniel 7:25. And the same root – given – is the same root word that’s used in Romans 1 when we are given over to our lust, passion, and debased mind. The outer court is given over to the nations.
Third given. Authority is given to the two witnesses. Verse 3,
“And I will grant authority to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1260 days, clothed in sackcloth.”
“All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations.” Did you notice the prophetic sandwich here? Verse 1, you have security. Verse 2, vulnerability, the trampling. Verse 3, authority. This prophetic witness … witnesses are wearing sackcloth, communicating like Elijah and John the Baptist, mourning the sin of the nations.
The witnesses are prepared. The witnesses are secondly, empowered. Verse 4,
“These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth.”
I love that phrase, “stand before the Lord of the earth.” Picture a Christian in handcuffs standing before a judge and being condemned to die for following Jesus. What this text is saying is, “No, ultimately you stand before the Lord of the earth.” Who is this? Who are these witnesses? I believe Revelation tells us back in 1:20. The lampstands refer to the church. 7 lampstands, the number of completion, referring to the complete people of God, the church. Also, you’ll notice in 11:7, the beast makes war on these witnesses. If you jumped forward to 13:7 you will notice the beast makes war on the saints, same war.
Olive trees picture a perpetual supply of oil to fuel the lamp stands. God is going to take care of his people. Why are there two? Remember there were two faithful churches of the seven, Philadelphia and Smyrna. Also, in Deuteronomy 17:6 and elsewhere, a testimony is established by two witnesses. Look at verse 5. What you’re reading here is God is building his case during this sting operation against the nations. Verse 5,
“And if anyone would harm them, fire pours from their mouth and consumes their foes. If anyone would harm them, this is how he is doomed to be killed. They have the power to shut the sky, that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying, and they have power over the waters to turn them into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire.”
This is vivid, symbolic language communicating that these witnesses are protected and empowered. And the images of fire, drought, water to blood, plague, are symbols of prophetic authority patterned after the ministry of Elijah and Moses, who did those very things. Saying, “I will enable you to do what you need to do as you fulfill my prophetic calling.”
Number 2, empowered. Number 3, persecuted. Now here’s the part where you say, “How can these two go together? They’re so powerful!” Yet, verse 7.
“When they have finished their testimony, the beast that rises from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them.”
Don’t miss that. You cannot be hurt until your calling is done, and then you’re toast. He is saying, I send them on a mission. They proclaim the message I sent them to proclaim. They live the life I called them, and it is impossible to hurt them until that point. And then when they have finished their task, I call them home. They are killed,
“and their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified. For three and a half days some from the peoples and tribes and languages and nations will gaze at their dead bodies and refuse to let them be placed in a tomb, and those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them and make merry and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to those who dwell on the earth.”
This is really hard for us as Americans to imagine, right? That’s why most people just feel comfortable to throw this into a time in the future and say “I’m out of here. I don’t have to think about it.” Part of that is because we as Americans have experienced for many, many decades unparalleled social acceptance. For a long time, and especially in the south, if you wanted to actually improve your reputation and help your business, you went to church. You wanted to be known as a churchgoing person, a Christian kind of person. And whether you were a real one or not was irrelevant. You wanted that title for your reputation. What happens when that flips? Which is what is happening in our culture slowly, fairly quickly. That’s actually flipping to where it actually hurts your business, it may cost you. There are people who will actually rejoice to see you miserable or hurt. Now obviously in our country it hasn’t gotten to the point of physical martyrdom, for the most part. Usually it comes in the form of intimidation, like with the recent Drew Brees event a couple of weeks ago where he had the audacity to encourage kids to take their Bibles to school on a Focus on the Family video. And he was just blasted online. But when we compare that, which can be very intimidating, right? We all want to fit in.
But when we compare that with what we just heard in India, hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pastors giving their lives, and other Christians. And it’s not even viewed as abnormal. If I’m going to follow a crucified Savior, how can I imagine following him and never experiencing hardship? Am I better than him? Does God love me more than he loves his Son? Perhaps we have a weird view of love. What this is describing is an incredible hostility.
Number 4, vindicated. The prophetic witnesses are vindicated in verse 11.
“But after the three and a half days a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood up on their feet, and great fear fell on those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, ‘Come up here!’ And they went up to heaven in a cloud, and their enemies watched them. And at that hour there was a great earthquake, and a tenth of the city fell. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the rest were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.”
Their martyrdom was not the end of the story. God raised them, called them to himself, and publicly vindicated them. And the judgment that falls here in verse 13, one tenth of the city, 7000 people killed, which is an interesting number. It’s the exact opposite of the 7000 remnant in Elijah’s day, picturing that these are just tremors of ultimate judgment, still sent to plead with people to repent, which you see very clearly in verse 13. Many were “terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven,” much debated phrase. Was that genuine repentance? If you look at the way the word is used in the rest of Revelation, it seems like we’re talking about real repentance. And if that is the case, then there’s a powerful message here. The judgment that fell in chapters 8 and 9 that led to the end of 9:20-21, no repentance. Here, in light of these followers of Jesus who are humbly and sacrificial laying their lives out and looking like losers, ultimately leads to massive amounts of repentance and glory to God.
“The second woe has passed; behold, the third woe is soon to come,”
leads to what is the chiastic center of the entire book of Revelation. And we’ll talk about this more next week. A chiasm moves from wide into the middle and then back out to wide. This passage is the chiastic center of the entire book of Revelation. And look what it says,
“Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying, ‘The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.’ And the twenty-four elders who sit on their thrones before God fell on their faces and worshiped God, saying, ‘We give thanks to you, Lord God Almighty, who is and who was’ [And who, wait, there’s no more “is to come.”] How do we know this is the end of time? Because the “is to come” has come. This center of Revelation is actually the very end of time. The nations have raged, God’s wrath has been shown, and his servants are being rewarded. The destroyers are being destroyed. We’ll unpack that more next week.
I want us just to step back and see what we’ve seen so far. Because Revelation, one of the illustrations that helps my brain, is a photographic mosaic. A photographic mosaic is a picture that’s made of a bunch of little pictures. This is an up-close picture with lots of pictures that doesn’t look like anything because we’re too close. And I feel like a lot of the ways we study Revelation, this is one of the reasons we’re moving quickly, which I know can be frustrating. But when you try to get too up close to these passages, we will end up getting lost in a sea of details that actually can blind us to the whole picture. Like this picture, imagine the details of Revelation 11. You have measuring rods and temples and months and years and olive trees and lampstands. And who’s this and who’s that? Sodom, Egypt, clouds, fire, earthquakes — all of that is up close. Now this picture, if you step back, you will notice the only time you will ever see me using a cat in a positive illustration. That previous picture was up close, and you couldn’t even tell what it was. And you could dissect all those little images, and you still would miss the big point.
I think a lot of us do that with the Book of Revelation. If we step back, what is Revelation 11 a picture of? And I think it’s this. It’s the life cycle of the prophetic witness. You notice it mirrors the life cycle of Jesus Christ, even the three and a half years. How long did Jesus minister? Yeah, about three and a half years. He was called, prepared, empowered. He was persecuted, ultimately died, buried, vindicated, rewarded, exalted. This picture is a picture of our Lord and of all those who are in him. This is the shape of our lives.
“It is enough for the disciple to be like his teacher.”
You can see in this absolute security with the potential of intense suffering.
How do we respond to this? I want to use a very specific example that I think might help us. In April 1983 a young woman named Catherine was praying about going to the mission field, to Uganda specifically, and there were a lot of dangers at that time, and she felt paralyzed by fear. And so she asked her pastor, Jack Miller, for some help. Jack was coming in and out of the country, and they didn’t have time to meet. He wrote a letter to her, which I’m grateful for because then we can benefit from that letter. And he began the letter by identifying with her fears. He said there are times where he is in places in the world where he said he experiences so much fear, it feels like “a practical atheism.” He said, in his words, this is in me “in a very deep way.” But then he went on to suggest three things he does that helps with those kinds of fears.
Number 1, he said,
“I need to get the facts about the actual dangers in any situation. [He’s talking about dangers in a particular country.] Usually the fears are much worse than the facts.”
And he talked about that.
“Secondly, it is of even greater importance that you understand your own call in the light of God’s calling of all believers to the privilege to suffer the way Jesus did. It is given to us — a gift from God — not only to believe in Jesus but to suffer with him.”
He talked about this privilege and the verses that describe it. And then he counseled her this, and I think this is significant because many of us, we go to the book of Revelation to find out how we get out of here. Listen to what he says to her.
“Also, soak yourself in the Book of Revelation. It’s loaded with glory for those who are faithful to death and give themselves to witness-martyrdom for dear Jesus’ sake. But with that you need to settle in a straightforward way what is your own calling. You are bound to have many fears and complexities until you face that question more squarely.”
And what he means by that is that if you just read a missionary biography, for example, and then try to do exactly what that person does, you’re still going to live in fear and complexity because each of our callings are different. And even though the overall shape may be similar, what this “down” looks like and what this “up” looks like for all of us varies. So that’s what he means by call. Is God calling me to walk through a season of cancer? Is God calling me in this relational difficulty or to move to a place or to reach out to a people? What does that call look like for you?
“Third…, this guidance can only come as we believers function as a community of faith.”
In other words, this isn’t just about the lone comet going off and doing something crazy for Jesus. This is together. We pray. We encourage. We empathize with one another. There isn’t a kind of person that likes to live this way. No, none of us do in the flesh. But in the power of the Spirit God does this work in us. He talks about the benefit of encouraging one another to see the danger of living out of fear. Isn’t that interesting? Not to see the danger of going to a dangerous place, but to see that living out of fear is far more dangerous than any place you think Jesus might call you.
Then he said this. These words sound a lot like Jesus, the part I quoted at the beginning. Don’t be afraid. They can only kill you. You’re more valuable than a sparrow.
“God calls you to greatness, Catherine, but greatness means fruitfulness, and fruitfulness comes as we die to self and our fears and rise from the dead.”
There is no straight shot greatness. That’s what Satan offered Jesus in the wilderness, the shortcut to greatness. And Jesus resisted by the promises of the word and went down. And then God brought him up. And the same with us, there’s no shortcut. He ends this way, explaining I don’t know whether God is calling you to Uganda or not, but this is what we’ve all got to hear.
“But your life must have a death in it if it is to go anywhere. The greatest thing hindering revival at New Life, [That’s their church in Philadelphia. We could put North Hills in there.] The greatest thing hindering revival at [North Hills] is the way we tend to run away from our own death. The cross can be evaded only so long. Then if we keep away from it, we begin to create our own deaths, and we die thousands of times over, killed and rekilled by our own anxieties.”
This is where some of us are. We’re so afraid to die to ourselves, we end up killing ourselves in a miserable way, like getting into a cold swimming pool inch by inch. And Jesus is saying, “Let’s dive in.” Let’s dive in. Let’s take all our fears and our questions and our uncertainties and our expectations. Many of us have assumptions as to what he’s talking about there that are completely unbiblical. Let’s take all of that and give that over to him.