The Eternal Gospel audio (4MB)
What is the gospel? Is it really good news, or is it something more? The answer to that question is important because if we get it wrong it’ll affect two things: the message we give people who don’t yet know Jesus, and more importantly whether we think it matters whether they hear about him in the first place.
But before we examine that question let’s look at how our passage begins.
It’d be easy after the horrifying pictures of chs 12 & 13 to be discouraged. Here are the Dragon and the two beasts making war on the church, seducing national leadership, fooling the religious by their counterfeit miracles, binding people in an economic straitjacket and it seems that they’re invincible.
But suddenly the scene changes again. God takes John’s eyes away from the problems of life on earth by giving him a short glimpse into the reality of life in heaven.
The change of scene is indicated by the phrase “Then I looked” And what does he see? He sees the Lamb standing on Mt Zion. The Lamb is Jesus and of course Mt Zion is the heavenly Jerusalem, the dwelling place of God. And who’s with him? The 144,000. We saw them back in ch 7 didn’t we? These are the representatives of the 12 tribes, but they’re also the representatives of the church. We’re told they are those who have been redeemed from the earth. They have the mark of God and the Lamb on their foreheads. And they haven’t defiled themselves with women. Remember this is metaphor. They’re not literally virgins. This is most probably an Old Testament reference to Israel remaining faithful or more often failing to remain faithful to God, who describes Israel as his bride. We’ll see that same metaphor again when we get to Ch 21. And what are the 144,000 doing? In a crescendo of joy that reminds John of the sound of many waters or the crash of thunder they sing praise that’s so beautiful it’s like the sound of harpists playing on their harps. Far from being discouraged by what he’s seen so far, John is lifted in ecstasy as he peers into the future that God has planned for him.
But before he can get too carried away, too excited, the scene shifts back once more to the earth, back to the carnage left by Satan and his agents. As John looks on it seems that history has at last drawn to its end. The next cycle of events is about to begin but this time its a cycle that brings on the last day. In fact we’ll see this last day played out in a variety of ways in the next few visions, but today, there’s just the one.
An angel appears in heaven proclaiming an eternal gospel to every nation and tribe and language and people. Well that’s not so bad. If it’s the gospel then it should be good news shouldn’t it? But what does the angel actually announce? “Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come; and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.”
The hour of his judgement has come? That doesn’t sound like good news does it? And what comes next makes it very clear that for most of those who hear it, it’s terrible news. Those who have sided with Satan, who thought that he was winning, are in for a terrible shock. “8Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication.” “9Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands, 10they will also drink the wine of God's wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.” It’s a breathtaking message. One that we cringe from. Yet worse is to come. He sees one like the son of man. This may refer to Jesus himself, since that’s how he’s described in other parts of Revelation, or it might be simply a human looking angel. He’s sitting on a white cloud, and in his hand is a sharp sickle. This is the grim reaper we see cartoons of. But it isn’t a cartoon. This is as serious as it gets. The message comes from the Temple to begin the final harvest. But then the image changes. Now the reaper is reaping not wheat as you might assume in the first image but now it’s grapes, being gathered into the wine press of God’s wrath. The grapes stand for those who have defied God as king, who have joined with Satan in opposing the church, and as the wine press is trodden - outside the city, notice - blood flows from the wine press, as high as a horse's bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles. Outside the city is important because it’s where Jesus was crucified. Jesus died to take our place in facing the wrath of God. But here we have this terrible picture of the last judgement being applied to those who have rejected Jesus’ offer of salvation.
Its horror is magnified by the contrasting picture we’re given as the focus moves once more to another cycle revealing the events of the last day. Here we see those who had conquered the beast and its image standing beside the sea of glass - remember the throne room of God in ch 4 - and singing God’s praises: “Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, King of the nations! 4Lord, who will not fear and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your judgments have been revealed.” When God’s righteous judgement is revealed his followers can do only one thing, sing his praises. His glory and righteousness will outweigh everything else that we’ve seen happening.
Meanwhile the judgement continues, relentlessly, as seven angels appear with bowls filled with God’s wrath and we see a similar sequence to the first two cycles of seals and trumpets. The plagues of Egypt are reenacted with sores breaking out on those bearing the mark of the beast, the waters and heavens become the instruments of God’s judgement - completely this time, until at last the dragon, in a last ditch attempt to survive, retaliates. He sends out his demonic forces to fight the last battle at a place called Armageddon. But it’s too late. We’ll see the result of that battle in next week’s section. But we hear the report of it right here: “a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, ‘It is done!’” And that’s it! Babylon and the other cities are destroyed, the mountains are brought down, the islands flee away and great hailstones fall on the people of the earth. And how do those people respond? Are they remorseful? Do they cry out to God for mercy? No, they curse God for the plague of hail.
There are some people who want to say that no-one will receive the judgement of God because when they appear before him on the judgement day they’ll repent and ask for mercy. When they realise his glory and righteousness they’ll see the error of their ways. But that’s the exact opposite of what we find here. These people don’t repent. Rather they compound their sin by cursing God.
Well, let’s go back to the question we began with. Is the gospel good news? That’s how it’s been characterised for the past fifty years isn’t it? Countless evangelistic tracts have been written encouraging people to believe in God because he has a wonderful plan for their life. The mission mantra is ‘God loves you’ and too often the implication that’s given with that is that God will accept you no matter how you live. It’s as though God’s one aim in life is to make you happy or better still make me happy. He’s the kindly Grandfather type who loves to spoil his grandchildren and can see no wrong in them.
And so we water down the moral imperatives of following Jesus. We overlook his call to take up our cross. We try not to take seriously his statement: "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” (Lk 14:26) And when he talks about the separation of sheep and goats, one going to salvation and the other to eternal judgement, we think it’s just hyperbole, exaggeration for the sake of argument.
But when we come to a passage like today’s we begin to realise that the gospel isn’t just good news. Yes it’s good news for us who believe but what about all these others. Paul points out in 1 Cor 1: “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Of course that’s good, as long as we’re among those who are being saved. In today’s passage we read: “13And I heard a voice from heaven saying, "Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord." "Yes," says the Spirit, "they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them." Good news indeed!
But we mustn’t forget that for those who haven’t believed the last day will be a day of terror. “11the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image and for anyone who receives the mark of its name.”
You may have heard that the pacific rim now has an alarm system to alert people on the coast of the danger of tsunamis whenever there’s an earthquake. It was set up in 1949 after a tsunami killed nearly 200 people in Hawaii and Alaska. It’s been used a few times in the past couple of months. It’s a great initiative for saving human lives isn’t it? But imagine if you knew that millions, even billions of people were going to die in a cataclysm far greater than anything we could imagine. What do you think we should do to warn them? Paul asks: “But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 15And how are they to proclaim him unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!’” (Rom 10:14-15 NRSV)
Jesus said “(Mat 28:19-20 NRSV) “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” The gospel is such terrible news that nothing should be able to stop us from warning those we love of the danger they face. We should be praying desperately that God would let them see how much they need him. We should be praying desperately that those who come to the Alpha course will see the truth and be freed by it. As we stand in a moment to sings songs of praise to God for his overwhelming grace to us it should be with tears in our eyes because we know that those who don’t yet know Jesus are walking into a danger they have no way of avoiding.