Revelation 11:15-19

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After the parenthesis of chapter 10 and the first 13 verses of chapter 11 John picks up where he left off in 9:21. The six trumpets have sounded. Now at last we hear the seventh. But with the sounding of the seventh trumpet we expect to hear of the third woe, the “second having passed,” as we just read in 11:14: the plagues of the last three trumpets being the three woes. Instead we hear the voices of a great heavenly host. This is parallel to the breaking of the seventh seal in 8:1. The six seals each had a specific content of woe and judgment. After the breaking of the sixth seal and before the seventh there was an interlude. Then came the breaking of the seventh seal. But when the seventh seal was broken no additional woe was mentioned as being visited upon the earth. In the same way, after the sixth trumpet there was an interlude, and now with the sounding of the seventh trumpet no specific woe or judgment is mentioned. Some, as you may remember, have argued that the seven trumpets together are the content of the seventh seal and that in a similar way the seven bowls, of which we will read in chapter 16, are the content of the seventh trumpet each cycle recapitulating the other. Others argue that, since in 10:7 we read that when the seventh trumpet is blown “the mystery of God will be accomplished,” the content of the seventh trumpet is the end of history itself, the final cataclysm, the Last Judgment. They then take these verses in chapter 11 that we are about to read as the content of the seventh trumpet, all the more because what the great host in heaven sings is a song of final triumph. What we have in these declarations one commentator has described as a “summary of all that is still to come” in the rest of Revelation and all of that from the vantage point of the consummation. These angelic declarations are, in any case, an introduction to the great themes that will dominate the remaining chapters of the book and especially to the conclusion of everything in the final chapters.

Text Comment

The past tense verbs represent the establishment of Christ’s kingdom on the earth as a fait accompli: something yet future but so certain it can be described as already in the past. You remember the apostle Paul doing the same thing about the believers’ glorification, something that does not happen until the Second Coming. In Romans 8:30 he puts our glorification in the past tense (“those he justified, he also glorified”) – something so certain you can speak of it as if it already occurred. We have not yet read of how Christ’s kingdom is to be established but this declaration of triumph amounts to the assertion that the battle is over, or, perhaps better, “all over but the shouting” and here even the shouting has begun, at least in heaven.

The twenty-four elders last appeared in 7:11. This angelic host likewise sings a hymn of anticipated and certain victory.

In 1:4, 1:8, and 4:8 we read of the Lord as the one who was, who is, and who is to come. The “who is to come” is omitted here because his coming is being viewed not as future but as already present. Again, by bringing the future into the present emphasis is laid upon the certainty of the event. It is so certain that it may be spoken of as having already occurred.

It is impossible to avoid the fact that the Lord’s triumph, his Second Coming, his bringing history to its appointed end, will mean doom for those who defied him as certainly it will mean salvation for those who trusted in him and served him. This double effect is a constant emphasis of Revelation. This is perhaps the third woe that goes with the sounding of the seventh trumpet. The third woe would appear to be the final judgment of mankind and eternal doom for the wicked. And, once again, the punishment fits the crime as always in the biblical doctrine of judgment. They are destroyed who in their unbelief and rebellion against God brought destruction upon the earth. In any case, John is not a universalist. He hears them say in heaven that those who did not fear God’s name will be destroyed, not saved.

The Bible is not chary of speaking of “rewards” for God’s people. We don’t hesitate to say that they are the rewards of God’s grace, for, as Jesus said, “Without me you can do nothing.” Nevertheless, God does reward his people for their service and in varying measure in keeping with the quality, the zeal, and the faithfulness of their service as many texts clearly teach.

By the way, “prophets and saints” occur together in several other places in Revelation (16:6; 18:24; cf. 22:9) and seem to represent the same people. [cf. Beale, 616-617] In other words, we have two designations for the same people: they are both prophets and saints. If this is so, it adds another argument for taking the two witnesses of 11:3 as representative of the church as a whole. If Christians are generally referred to as prophets – as they are elsewhere in the Bible – it would be because they bear witness to God’s truth in the world. We know of the “priesthood” of all believers as a biblical doctrine; we are taught that all believers are prophets also, as they likewise are or will be kings.

The final verse represents the response to the hymns sung by the angelic hosts. The opening of the sanctuary and the sight of the Ark of the Covenant beautifully represent the presence of the Lord with his people. The ark, you remember, was the embodiment of God’s presence with his people Israel. To describe the ark in the opened sanctuary is the visual equivalent of saying what is said in 21:3: “Now the dwelling of God is with men.” The lightning and earthquake, on the other hand, correspond to the outpouring of God’s wrath just mentioned.

Christmas has come and gone but the lingering echoes of Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus still sound in our ears and hearts.

The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. Hallelujah. And he shall reign for ever and ever.

There are, of course, comparatively few people, listening enraptured to that incomparable music, who have any real appreciation for what is actually being said. Take, for instance, the phrase, “the kingdom of this world” or “the kingdom of the world.” Notice the singular: not the kingdoms of this world, but the kingdom of this world. The world of course, lays great weight on the different kingdoms and nations, their different political philosophies and economic interests, their different measures of military power, and the world imagines that in the difference between one and another is to be found the meaning, the problem, and the hope of human life in the world. But this is not the Bible’s view at all. The various nations, the differences between them, are a minor detail of world history when viewed from the perspectives of heaven and the end. That is why the bible speaks about these things so infrequently. The political distinctions that matter so much to human beings are of little consequence in the greater scheme of things. There is, in fact, only one kingdom of this world, the anti-God kingdom ruled by a single authority. Paul refers to “the rulers of this present world” (Eph. 6:12) and means by them not human political figures of our earth but the evil spiritual powers of the Devil’s kingdom that actually run this world.

There are, therefore, but two kingdoms: the kingdom of this world that is in rebellion against God and the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ that will carry the eternal future with it. I’m sure the largest number of people who stood the other night to listen to the Tacoma Symphony Chorus sing the Hallelujah Chorus at St. Charles Borromeo church had no sense that the text was celebrating the certain victory of the kingdom of Christ over the kingdom of this world, to which many of them undoubtedly, however unknowingly, belong. They were, ironically, exulting to music that celebrates their own destruction. Such is the blindness of unbelief and futility of unbelief.

Now the kingdom of God, or the kingdom of Jesus Christ, is one of those organizing themes or motifs in the teaching of the Bible. The history of the kingdom of God isthe history of salvation itself. It is like the covenant or the church in this respect. You can write an entire history of the mankind from the vantage point of God’s covenant with mankind, broken, renewed, and consummated. And you can do the same thing with the kingdom of God. I have on my shelf a book by the biblical theologian, John Bright, entitled The Kingdom of God and it is a summary of the Bible’s history and theology organized according to this single theme of the kingdom. For, as the author indicates in his preface, “the concept of the kingdom of God involves, in a real sense, the total message of the Bible.” “To grasp,” he says, “what is meant by the kingdom of God is to come very close to the heart of the Bible’s gospel of salvation.” [7]

God has reigned over this world as its king from the beginning. As we read in Daniel 4:17 “the Most High is sovereign over the kingdoms of men…” This world has always been his kingdom and, in an important sense, it has always been the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ. Israel was, as you remember, a kingdom and Yahweh was its king of kings, and as the NT often asserts: Jesus is Yahweh come in the flesh. “The Lord your God was your king,” Samuel reminded Israel when it was clamoring for an earthly king such as the other nations had. The psalm writers addressed themselves to God as “my King and my God” and as “the King of all the earth” [44:4; 47:7] and often said such things as “the Lord of hosts, he is the king of glory.” [24:10] Israel’s earthly kings were to serve, not to supplant its heavenly king. The prophets promised that Israel would one day be given a great king, a Messiah, who would rule over her in justice and peace and extend his kingdom to the ends of the earth until all the world was Israel. “Behold your king comes unto you,” Zechariah prophesied to Israel.

And when Jesus began his ministry, we read in the Gospels, he preached “the kingdom of God” and the fact that the kingdom of God had come among men in his own person. He gave to his apostles the keys of the kingdom, so that men might enter it. He spoke of the mystery or secret of the kingdom of God in his parables, the surprising way in which it made its way into the world and in which it expanded among the nations and peoples of the world. He prophesied the consummation of the kingdom and meant by it the wonderful world that would come to pass at his second coming. He spoke of the days when many would come from the east and the west to sit down at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the kingdom of God and of the time when he would drink the wine of the Lord’s Supper again with his disciples in his Father’s kingdom. We read in the Gospels of men who are “not far from the kingdom” or who “enter the kingdom” or whom “the Lord is pleased to give the kingdom” but we also read of men against whom the kingdom of God is shut and of those who will never enter the kingdom of God. You can see from these citations how close the concept of the kingdom or the reign or rule of God is to such biblical concepts as the church and salvation itself.

In the book of Acts we read of the early Christian preachers proclaiming the message of the kingdom of God and the good news of the kingdom. Concerning the Lord Jesus, we read that upon his return to heaven he was “enthroned as king.” We have already read in Revelation 3:21 the Lord Jesus say to those who believe in him,

“To him who overcomes, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I overcame and sat down with my Father on his throne.”

The terms “king” and “kingdom” and “throne” in reference to God and Christ occur hundreds of times in the Bible. The kingdom of God, his reign, has always been the reality of life in this world and will continue to be forever. That kingdom has sometimes been made dramatically visible in the world, as it was at the exodus of Israel from Egypt and supremely in the life and ministry and the miracles of Jesus Christ. In such times we read that the kingdom of God drew near. And that same kingdom has these thousands of years since the Lord’s ascension to heaven been growing in the world. But except for those few notable exceptions, the reign, the kingdom of God and Christ is a kingdom that is visible only to faith. It is hidden for the most part from the world. The Lord Christ has always been the king – that is clear throughout the Bible; the powers of this world have always been subject to him – but he has not made his reign visible or his rule manifest. He has not consummated his kingdom by destroying all his enemies and by establishing his people in eternal peace and prosperity.

Some have described the situation by saying that Jesus is a king de jure but not de facto. [Caird, 141] However much in principle and by right he is the King of Kings, he will not be King in fact until he is acknowledged by all to be such and until he has imposed his rule upon all, his enemies and his friends alike. But while that captures a part of the picture, it isn’t quite right as a description of the reality the Bible describes. It is true that the Lord has long allowed rebels to remain unsubdued and for long years many have refused to honor his throne. But it is also true that he has never for a moment been anything other than the absolute sovereign of this world and of all people on the earth. We are taught in the Bible that if he allows mankind’s rebellion to continue it is only so as to accomplish his own will and to fulfill his own purpose. Remember how often we are reminded that the world continues as it does in large part because the Lord is waiting upon it, because he desires that all men come to repentance, and because the full number of the elect has not yet been brought in. The Lord is no less a king, no less a Sovereign, no less the King of Kings because in his forbearance and his love he allows the world’s rebellion to continue for a time! Still, there is a point at which the waiting will end.

It is clearly the case that in Revelation we are considering the kingdom of God and of Christ as a reality soon to be made visible to all. In Revelation the great theme is the consummation of the kingdom when all will know for a certainty that Jesus Christ is King and all bow before him, subject to him, willingly or not. Revelation is of course a manifesto of Christ’s present reign – nothing is clearer in this book than that history stands under his authority and unfolds according to his will – but it is his future public and visible reign and kingdom to which John’s book is pointing us and preparing us. We pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “your kingdom come,” and we mean by that both that the Lord’s will would be done and his rule come to pass in the events of this world and that he would come again and bring his reign to its visible consummation. Revelation, and especially the latter half of the book, is primarily concerned with that final, ultimate consummation of the kingdom of God.

And what we are told here, in this summary introduction to the second half of the book, is that the final manifestation of that kingdom, its establishment in the visible life of the world is so certain it may be spoken of as having already taken place! This phenomenon, a kind of figure of speech really, occurs elsewhere in the Bible and has been illustrated in different ways. Most famously, since the publication in the 1940s of the Swiss Reformed scholar, Oscar Cullman’s, book Christ and Time it has been likened to the effect of the successful Normandy invasion in June of 1944. The Allied victory in that battle guaranteed their eventual victory in Europe (virtually every German general understood that!), but it did not mean that the fighting immediately ended. It would be a long year of bitter fighting before the German military finally surrendered. It may have been all over but the shouting but most American soldiers who died in Europe died after D-Day, the decisive battle, not before it. So the victory of Christ on the cross and in the resurrection. The victory has been won. The crisis has passed. The consummation has been made certain, but the end is not yet. There is struggle, suffering and even martyrdom that must be endured before the end comes. Others have likened it to being nearly frozen and then coming into a warm room. The thawing of the body, the returning to normality, the restoration of feeling in the frozen limbs is now a certainty, but there is still pain to be suffered and time must pass while the body thaws. The turning point may have been reached; the critical battle fought and won, but the end is not yet. Still, the certainty of the end is what matters and that is what is being celebrated in these verses in chapter 11.

Our supreme difficulty as Christians with respect to the small and the great in our lives, the difficulty we encounter everyday in living the Christian life remains that until that kingdom is made manifest, until Christ’s reign is visibly and finally imposed without qualification upon the entire world, we must take it as an article of faith. However much we may truly know that the Lord is king; however much the evidence of his reign is such not only for us who believe but for all men that any who deny his Lordship will find themselves without excuse on the Great Day, still a remarkably large number of human beings find it easy either to deny or ignore Christ’s lordship over all the earth and you and I who believe it struggle to remember it and to reckon with it and fully to believe it every day.

We are, for that reason, always the more grateful for the many demonstrations of his reign, rule and kingdom, the many anticipations of its consummation that we who believe are granted from time to time in this world. Some of you will have seen an article published last week (Dec. 27, 2008) in the On-line edition of the Times of London. Several folk forwarded the article to me. It is written by one, Matthew Parris, who claims himself to be an atheist but believes that Africa needs nothing so much as Christians and the Christian faith. He writes:

Before Christmas I returned, after 45 years, to the country that as a boy I knew as Nyasaland. Today it’s Malawi, and The Times Christmas Appeal includes a small British charity working there. Pump Aid helps rural communities to install a simple pump, letting people keep their village wells sealed and clean. I went to see this work.
It inspired me, renewing my flagging faith in development charities. But travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God. Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes
people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.

I used to avoid this truth by applauding – as you can – the practical work of mission churches in Africa. It’s a pity, I would say, that salvation is part of the package, but Christians black and white, working in Africa, do heal the sick, do teach people to read and write; and only the severest kind of secularist could see a mission hospital or school and say the world would be better without it. I would allow that if faith was needed to motivate missionaries to help, then, fine: but what counted was the help, not the faith.

But this doesn’t fit the facts. Faith does more than support the missionary; it is also transferred to his flock. This is the effect that matters so immensely, and which I cannot help observing. First, then, the observation. We had friends who were missionaries, and as a child I stayed often with them; I also stayed, along with my little brother, in a traditional rural African village. In the city we had working for us Africans who had converted and were strong believers. The Christians were always different. Far from having cowed or confined its converts, their faith appeared to have liberated and relaxed them. There was a liveliness, a curiosity, an engagement with the world directness in their dealings with others – that seemed to be missing in traditional African life. They stood tall. At 24, traveling by land across the continent reinforced this impression. From Algiers to Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon and the Central African Republic, then right through the Congo to Rwanda, Tanzania and Kenya, four student friends and I drove our old Land Rover to Nairobi. We slept under the stars, so it was important as we reached the more populated and lawless parts of the sub-Sahara that every day we find somewhere safe by nightfall. Often near a mission. Whenever we entered a territory worked by missionaries, we had to acknowledge that something changed in the faces of the people we passed and spoke to: something in their eyes, the way they approached you direct, man-to-man, without looking down or away. They had not become more deferential towards strangers—in some ways less so—but more open.

This time in Malawi it was the same. I met no missionaries. You do not encounter missionaries in the lobbies of expensive hotels discussing development strategy documents, as you do with the big NGOs. But instead I noticed that a handful of the most impressive African members of the Pump Aid team (largely from Zimbabwe) were, privately, strong Christians. “Privately” because the charity is entirely secular and I never heard any of its team so much as mention religion while working in the villages. But I picked up the Christian references in our conversations. One, I saw, was studying a devotional textbook in the car. One, on Sunday, went off to church at dawn for a two-hour service.

It would suit me to believe that their honesty, diligence and optimism in their work was unconnected with personal faith. Their work was secular, but surely affected by what they were. What they were was, in turn, influenced by a conception of man’s place in the Universe that Christianity had taught. There’s long been a fashion among Western academic sociologists for placing tribal value systems within a ring fence, beyond critiques founded in our own culture: “theirs” and therefore best for “them”; authentic and of intrinsically equal worth to ours. I don’t follow this. I observe that tribal belief is no more peaceable than ours; and that it suppresses individuality. People think collectively; first in terms of the community, extended family and tribe. This rural traditional mindset feeds into the “big man” and gangster politics of the African city: the exaggerated respect for a swaggering leader, and the (literal) inability to understand the whole idea of loyal opposition.

Anxiety—fear of evil spirits, of ancestors, of nature and the wild, of a tribal hierarchy, of quite everyday things—strikes deep into the whole structure of rural African thought. Every man has his place and, call it fear or respect, a great weight grinds down the individual spirit, stunting curiosity. People won’t take the initiative, won’t take things into their own hands or on their own shoulders.

Why interfere? Nothing to be done about it, or with it. Christianity, post-Reformation and post-Luther, with its teaching of a direct, personal, two-way link between the individual and God, unmediated by the collective, and unsubordinate to any other human being, smashes straight through the philosophical/spiritual framework I’ve just described. It offers something to hold on to to those anxious to cast off a crushing tribal groupthink. That is why and how it liberates. Those who want Africa to walk tall amid 21st-century global competition must not kid themselves that providing the material means or even the know how that accompanies what we call development will make the change. A whole belief system must first be supplanted. And I’m afraid it has to be supplanted by another. Removing Christian evangelism from the African equation may leave the continent at the mercy of a malign fusion of Nike, the witch doctor, the mobile phone and the machete.

So Matthew Parris. But the difference it makes to live in Christ’s kingdom instead of in the kingdom of this world is hardly visible only in Africa. I heard just the other day of a Covenant College graduate who had managed to retain his position at a large Manhattan banking house when so many others with more seniority had lost theirs. He explained, “When you get right down to it, everyone’s skill level is about the same so I think there are only two things that separate me from others who have been let go. First, I have integrity and somehow they seem to have picked up on that [as] important to them. Second, I know how to communicate well. I let others know what I am going to do, when I will do it and I follow up on what I said I would do. I am respectful of them and I never yell. It is amazing how that sets me apart.”

There is a citizenship and a service and an obedience that distinguishes those whose king is the King of Kings. It has always been so and is today. There is already a great difference between the kingdom of the world and the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ. The difference is not nearly as dramatically visible as it shall be one day, but it can already be easily noticed by those who have eyes to see. It is an article of our faith that Christ’s kingdom will be established in this world. But it is not faith without reason or without evidence. The King of Kings makes his presence known already in anticipation of the day when every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.