Stay in The Story
Let’s turn to Revelation 22. It’s so good to see you all. Seeing new faces each week is such a joy. Whether you’re here or worshiping from home we’re so glad we get to get in his Word together.
April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler committed suicide. May 8, 1945, Germany surrendered. July 26, 1945, Winston Churchill was voted out. Now think about the timeline there. April, Hitler gave up. May, the Nazis were defeated. July, Winston Churchill — who if there’s any human on the earth that could be responsible for the fact that England was free, it was that man — and that man was voted out of office. A little bit confusing. What’s even more fascinating is how he responded. Churchill was a very passionate man. It’s part of what got him in trouble so often. He had high highs and low lows, and he would express what he felt, whether it’s in tears or rage. But when he heard this news — which should have been one of the most devastating experiences of his life, to have given his life, literally, he sacrificed his health, everything to lead his country and really the world to victory. And then within a couple months to be voted out of office. Why did that not devastate him? Why did he … as one man said, he received the news “without flinching.” He wasn’t angry. He didn’t slip into despair. He didn’t fall into self-pity. Great question. Glad you asked. He even had pity on the people. He told one man, speaking of his country countrymen, he said, “They have had a very hard time.” But Andrew Roberts, in his monumental work, “Churchill: Walking with Destiny,” gave one simple answer to why he responded the way he responded. And that was, “He was an historian.” He was (Churchill was) an historian.
So, how does that explain his response? Well, if you think about the fact that months before this happened, December 1944, he, Churchill, told Colville this,
“The English people always turned on those whom they thought had served them well in hard times.”
And he could rattle off, because he was such an historian and had written many, many, many books on history. He could rattle off examples of great British leaders who accomplished great victories and then were rejected — Duke of Marlborough, Wellington, Disraeli. He could just talk about them as if he lived with them, their highs and their lows. So, for Churchill, his rejection at the pinnacle of victory, the moment they had longed for and prayed for and fought for and sacrificed everything for, to be rejected at that moment was interpreted in the light of this massive narrative, this greater history. Roberts describes it this way,
His defeat fit into a “grand historical theme of successful, heroic endeavor followed by expulsion from power by an ungrateful people.”
That was the story. His defeat fit into a grand historical theme, a much larger story. Now, don’t miss the fact, what was Churchill’s much larger story? It was the British Empire. That was his religion. That’s the story he gave his life to — a story full of good, a story full of bad — that was his life.
And relatively speaking, just like the American story, or just like any other country’s story, full of good and bad, it’s a rather tiny story compared to THE story. But we can learn from Churchill at this point. What if we, as followers of Jesus, knew how to interpret momentary defeats in light of a grand narrative, a massive story, so that every time they occur, we’re not taken back and shocked and slipping into despair or anger or why me? But we interpret the highs and the lows and the boring parts of our lives all through the lens of a much larger and greater story than the British or the American or the Kenyan or any other country’s story.
And when you answer that question, “How does that happen?” You’re getting really close to the point of the Book of Revelation. One of the primary messages of the Book of Revelation is, stay in THE story. And notice the “The” is capitalized. We’re not talking about any old story. We’re not talking about making up our own story. We’re not talking about, “I want to write my own.” No, it’s THE story. Staying in THE story, the Book of Revelation, most people come to the Book of Revelation thinking future, for good reason. Revelation talks a lot about the future. But they miss the fact that there’s no other book in the New Testament that quotes or refers to the Old Testament more than the Book of Revelation. It is a book that is all about the past, that shapes the present, that looks toward the future. It is describing the big story — who God is and what he’s up to. And you see it right at the beginning, chapter 1, and all the way through. The point of Revelation is not to stir up speculation, but to motivate perseverance, endurance, or as Revelation 1:9 says, “patient endurance.” To see your story in light of THE story.
And you catch this again here at the end. Look at Revelation 22:6-11. This is the little paragraph we’re going to cover today. Two big things are accomplished in this passage. First of all, we learn a bit more about the nature of the story. There’s a summary of the nature of the story. But then secondly, the primary focus is going to be our response to that story. So, let’s do those two things, and we’ll land on our response.
First of all, the nature of the story, this story. Three descriptions: it is true, it is near, it is exclusive. First of all, true. Verse 6,
“And he said to me, ‘These words are trustworthy and true. And the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets, has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place.’”
These words are trustworthy and true. The story is reliable. It’s more reliable than your feelings. It’s more dependable than the endless stories you will read in the news every single day or even in history books. And the reason these words are trustworthy and true is because they come from, as it says in verse six, “the Lord, the God of the spirits of the prophets.” He’s the one who has sent his angel to show his servants what must soon take place. They are true.
Secondly, they are near, and their nearness is communicated in three ways in this passage. Look at verse six, “what must soon take place.” Look at verse 7, “Behold, I am coming soon.” Verse 10, “for the time is near.” In Daniel 12:4, Daniel was told to seal up the book until the end because the time was not near for Daniel. John is told, don’t seal up the book because the time is near. And as we talked about last week, the fact that the time is near doesn’t mean there aren’t going to be any delays. Jesus promised that, that there would be delays. But he meant “the time is near” in the sense of the prophetic dominoes are falling. The plan is already on folding. It is happening. It is near.
Three, it is exclusive. Verses 8-9, once again, John (we saw this earlier) gets so excited about the apocalyptic revelations he is seeing. He falls to his face, begins to worship. The angel rebukes him, “Dude, I’m a servant like you. Don’t worship me, worship God.” So, even here at the end, Revelation is once again communicating that this story is not up for grabs. It’s not about you find your own way and as long as you follow your heart and you’re sincere and you worship whatever form of being you discover, you’re going to be good. No, worship God. This is an exclusive story. It’s not woven into whatever sincere idea you come up with. Worship God. This story is true, it is near, and it is exclusive in that it is unique. It is from God. It is by God. It is for God. Worship God. Which, by the way, is a powerful message regarding the deity of Christ because all through the book we’ve been worshiping Jesus, right? And yet we’re commanded to only worship God. What if he’s God? So, whatever else we’ve learned about this prophecy, it is different from any other story that we would give our lives to. It is true. It is near. It is exclusive.
How do we respond to this? We are told in verse 7. And notice the response is embedded with a blessing.
“Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.”
And this is where we want to land, because this is where the blessing is. “Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.” That word “keeps” is a fascinating word. It’s the Greek word “tereo,” which means to watch over, to guard, take heed to. It can even mean to cherish, to value, to hold onto. It is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word “shamar,” which we have talked about in the past. Shamar appears all throughout the Old Testament. For example, Adam was put in the garden to shamar it, guard it, keep it, keep the garden. We’re commanded in Proverbs 4:23 to guard our hearts, to keep our hearts with all diligence for out of it flow the issues of life. We just prayed from Numbers 6:24. “The Lord bless you and [what?] keep you, [shamar you].” The only reason we can keep anything is because we were being kept. He keeps us and he turns us into keepers.
People who are born naturally non-keepers become word keepers by his grace. That’s where the blessing is. Blessed is the one who keeps the words. And this word, tereo, the Greek word, appears eleven times in the Book of Revelation. You ready to look at every one? Sure! Thank you. Thank you. A couple of you are ready.
Let’s take a look at each one of these uses, because I think you’ll feel the force of what we are called to and empowered to as we jet through the entire Book of Revelation in just a couple of minutes.
Revelation 1:3, “Blessed is the one…” You know this is a big theme — right at the beginning and right at the end. “Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.”
Revelation 2:25, to the church at Thyatira, who is tolerating Jezebel’s immorality and idolatry, “Only hold fast what you have until I come. The one who conquers and who keeps my works.” Notice not just words but works. Whatever this story says, it shapes not just the way we think, but the way we live. “… who keeps my works until the end, to him will I give authority over the nations.”
Revelation 3:3, to the church at Sardis, which had a reputation of being alive but was dead, “Remember, then, what you received and heard. Keep it, and repent.”
Revelation 3:8, to Philadelphia, “I know your works. Behold, I have set before you an open door, which no one is able to shut. I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name.” I love that, because some of us can feel the force of this call to keep and we just feel like, “I don’t know if I can. I’m so tired. I’m tired of keeping. I just want to give up. I’m done.” And Jesus says, “I know you have little power. But the reason you can keep is because I don’t have a little power. I have big power, and I can enable you to keep because you are kept in me.”
Revelation 3:10, “Because you have kept my word about patience endurance, I will [two times here] keep you from the hour of trial that is coming on the whole world.”
Revelation 12:17, “The dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus.”
Revelation 14:12, the message of the angels, “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus.”
Revelation 16:15, after the six bowls of wrath were poured out Jesus said, “Behold, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on, that he may not go about naked and be seen exposed.” As we studied months ago when we looked at this passage, that is talking about refusing to shed the garments of grace that Jesus has clothed you with.
Revelation 22:7, our text, “Behold, I am coming soon. Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.”
And Revelation 22:9, when John fell down at the feet of the angel and was rebuked, the angel reminded him of a fellow servant “with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God.”
Christians are by definition word keepers, keepers of the word. And lest that sounds so academic, like when I talked about Christians are by definition historians. It doesn’t just mean we know things about the past and about the future, this massive story. It does mean that. But it goes deeper than that. Jesus linked keeping with loving.
Let me show you an example, John 14:21, “Whoever has my commandments and [What? There it is, tereo.] keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”
John 14:23, “Jesus answered him, ‘If anyone loves me, he will [tereo my word] he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.”
Notice there’s no such thing as someone who loves Jesus but doesn’t keep his word. There’s no middle road there. That’s what I think verse 11 is getting at. Look at verse 11 of Revelation 22,
“Let the evildoers still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy.”
That can sound really fatalistic, deterministic. Almost like, “Well why even try? If you’ve blown it just keep blowing it.” That’s not the point. This is a warning against living in a fantasy world — I can keep doing evil, and somehow it’s going to turn out. Or I can keep doing righteousness, and somehow, it’s not going to turn out. Both of those are fantasies. And our brains can manufacture those fantasies constantly. Every day our culture and our cravings fabricate fantasies, and all of us go in one direction or the other. As Grant Horner writes,
“We cling to utterly unrealistic views about human nature, and we struggle with the recognition that something is not right with the world. [All of us get that.] From this, most people tend to go in either of two directions: they become idealists detached from reality, or they become cynics detached from humanity. Hence the two great classical genres of Comedy and Tragedy. Everything will work out in the former; everyone will die miserably in the latter. What will it be? ‘The Sound of Music’ or ‘Unforgiven’? Do we escape the Swiss Alps singing ‘Edelweiss,’ or do we die on the ballroom floor, rolling in blood and broken glass, dreaming of a house we will never live in?”
Both of these smaller stories are getting at a piece of reality. The comic is getting a piece of the story — hope and joy is real. The cynic is getting a piece of reality — evil and wrong and hopelessness often seem to prevail. But both are missing the depth and breadth and width of the story of God.
One of the primary purposes of the Book of Revelation as we saw all last fall, chapters 6-16 — that was a rough bunch of passages to spend the fall in. But we described that section as a giant sting operation where evil was allowed to have its way so as to be seen as it really is, as evil. What is God doing? Things are out of control. Evil seems to dominate. If you don’t know the story of God, when the dark times come you will become cynical. If you don’t know the story of God, when the good times come you will be delusional. It is tethering our lives to God’s story, a story where God allows some really wrong things to happen, the cross being the greatest one of those, in order to bring about something that’s really beautiful, bright, and hopeful.
It’s interesting, last August 18 is when we started that section in Revelation 6-16, and I shared on that Sunday of a musician writer who had abandoned his faith, a Christian musician. And most of you probably have seen in the news this week, there was another prominent musician, Jon Steingard, who renounced his faith. And the story just exploded through the news. Now, I don’t know, John. I don’t even think I’ve ever heard any of his music. Maybe I have and didn’t know it. But I do understand the struggle with doubt. I have the kind of brain that I can’t even read a verse without hundreds of questions coming, flooding my mind. So, my heart goes out to him. I don’t stand in judgment at all of him. My prayers are for him. But as I was reading some of the articles that describe some of the posts he’s made that explain some of the questions he had that led him to deny Jesus — questions like, why is there evil in the world? Why is God angry in the Old Testament, loving in the New Testament? Why did Jesus have to die? Obviously, these are not new questions. Christians have wrestled with these questions for thousands of years. But as I was reading what he was describing as his wrestlings and conclusions, it just became very obvious that there’s such a stark difference between knowing Christian slogans (like Hallmark card kind of answers) and really knowing the story of God.
And my burden is that as God’s plan unfolds, that we are a people who know the story of God. And that’s the message of the Book of Revelation. It’s not written to tingle our speculative theories so that we can come up with the coolest prophecy chart. It’s written to Christians who are enduring really hard things and encountering intense opposition in cultures that didn’t get them and rejected everything they believed. And it was given to energize them so that they will be fueled to interpret their defeats and depressions and discouragements in light of this massive story of God. That’s the purpose. And that’s what verse 7 is getting at when it offers a blessing for those who keep the words. “Blessed are the ones who keep the words.”
It’s not, try to keep the commandments in order to earn salvation. That’s not it at all. You’re kept and now you’re called to keep. “Fortunate are the ones.” Yeah, but that guy lost his head. He was beheaded for his testimony, his faith in Christ. “Fortunate is he because he kept the words.” Yeah, but he was mocked and rejected. She lost her job. “Fortunate is she because she kept the words.” It’s a different view of success. It’s a different definition of failure and trial, but there is a blessing in there. There’s a blessing in there.
One of my favorite coronavirus books — it really has nothing to do with the coronavirus, but I read it a couple of months ago, was “Born Again This Way” by Rachel Gilson. Rachel grew up in California, was opposed to Christianity. She writes this,
“In my eyes, Christianity was not only stupid but cruel. I was culturally aware enough to have gotten the impression that Christians hated gay people. Hated them through legislation; hated them through signs waved. Hated them in jokes exchanged gleefully; hated them sometimes even in brutality. And for me, this ‘them’ wasn’t theoretical. This ‘them’ was me.”
Rachel lived as a lesbian through high school and then went to Yale. She didn’t know any Christians there except two girls who were living in a lesbian relationship and claimed to be Christians. But one day she was in the room of an acquaintance and the acquaintance wasn’t in the room at the time and she noticed a book on the bookshelf. She didn’t understand why, but she was drawn toward it, titled “Mere Christianity.” So, she stole it. She began to read it, and it rocked her world. She began to realize that not only does God exist, but he has given his Son for her. She came under deep conviction because there’s great irony when God is speaking to you through a book you stole. She writes,
“My life thus far had been a parade of cruelty, lies, selfishness and more.”
But she kept reading and learning and began to understand what Jesus had done for her.
“My mind,” she writes, “raced with things that I sensed I must give up if I threw my lot in with Jesus: partying, finding a wife, control of my own life even. But how could these remain attractive in the face of overwhelming, undeserved mercy? Of salvation? Could I really pretend that the gospel was not true simply because it would be inconvenient for my life? That seemed the height of stupidity.”
So, right there in the middle of the Yale library, she repented and believed. She soon found a real Christian group to gather with, to worship with, to be discipled by. She struggled. She failed. She repented. She flourished. She grew. Her faith transformed her. Her lifestyle changed. She writes this.
“We need God’s words more than ever. He has not abandoned us to be raised in the orphanage of desire. [Just take that in. God has not abandoned us to be raised in the orphanage of desire.] He has given us birth and given us in the Bible a vision of the goodness of our bodies. A vision for the real reason why sex is so powerful. A vision for his plans for it, and for us, in the world.”
Now stop and think what she just described there. She’s talking about a vision that contradicts what she’s feeling, what her body is currently desiring, what her plans were. But this vision, this story, is now reshaping her and enabling her to interpret everything about her body, her sexuality, her future. Her plans are now shaped by God’s word rather than the other way around. Rather than me rewriting what I think God should be in order to fit what I think my story should be. She writes,
“Our culture sings that we are ‘born this way.’ But I am born again. My life has told a different story than what society expects from me and what I expected for myself, because God himself has written his own twists and turns into the narrative.”
“Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book.”
Let’s pray. Father, we want to write a story that fits our lives rather than live our lives in the shape of your story. We pray that as we respond, you would hear many, many prayers of repentance, many, many prayers of faith in Jesus, many, many prayers of “Yes, Lord. This is hard and it hurts. But I want to see this through the light of who you are and what you’re doing. I am not going to make you or your story in my own image. I want you to reshape me in your image.” Help us now and remind us that’s where blessing is, in Jesus’ name, amen.