Wednesday, 31 May 2017

The Seventh Trumpet Will Sound (Rev. 11)

One could say that this chapter contains one of the most difficult passages to interpret (measuring the temple and the two witnesses) and one of the most straightforward to understand (the day of judgement). Having said that about ourselves and our grasp of things does not have to mean that it was hard for the original readers to grasp what the two witnesses and the measuring of the temple signified.

In the section about the witnesses, John refers to two cities. One is called the holy city, but this is not a reference to the earthly Jerusalem. Instead, Jerusalem along with Sodom and Egypt belongs to the unholy city. Frequently in Revelation, the contrast between God’s people and others is illustrated through the idea of two opposing cities. There is God’s city and there is the enemy city. Of course, what makes a place a city is its inhabitants. Without inhabitants, a city does not exist.

It may be worth noting that in this chapter we have the final reference to the cross of Jesus in the Bible (v. 8). We can see from the description that this is how the city of Jerusalem is finally remembered. What could have been her greatest blessing is her most sinful action. She could have been described as the place where the Spirit came in power to bless the message of the cross, but in the main she rejected the message. She forced the followers of the cross to leave, an action which brought blessing elsewhere in the world, but how sad it was for her! We should not be surprised that Jesus wept over her.

Witnessing to the truth before the Judgement (11:1-10)
First, we note that the two witnesses function in the period between when the temple of God was measured and the Day of Judgement. In Ezekiel 40–44, the temple was measured and in Zechariah 2 the city of Jerusalem was also measured and the purpose of those measurements was to show God’s care and protection of Israel and the future prosperity of the city of Jerusalem. So, the instruction to measure the temple here is an indication that God intends to protect his people and prosper them whatever their current circumstances.

What does John mean here by the temple of God? It is unlikely that he means the temple in Jerusalem because most commentators think this book was written twenty years after the city was destroyed in 70 AD. Having said that, John could have seen that temple in a vision and be saying that the temporary temple in Jerusalem was a picture in some ways of another temple, the church.

Connected to the temple that John sees are two courts. The one that he is to measure is the inner court whereas the other one, which he is not allowed to measure, is the outer. (There had been an outer court in the temple at Jerusalem where Gentiles could gather, but they were not allowed into the inner court.) Those in the inner court in John’s vision are beyond the reach of the Gentiles whereas those in the outer are under attack from the Gentiles, indeed under strong attack. It is not difficult to see here a picture of the church triumphant and the church militant.

John draws attention to an altar in the inner court. If he is using the Jerusalem temple as a model, then the altar found in the inner court, or Holy of holies, was the altar of incense (rather than the altar on which sacrifices were offered, which was in the outer courtyard). Incense typified prayer, and it is likely that by this reference to the altar he is stressing the reality that prayer is accepted by God and is connected to his actions. This altar in God’s presence is a pointer to the reality that the prayers of the saints are made perfect in his sight by the intercession of Jesus.

John also says that the period in which this opposition will last is three and a half years (42 months), and this is the same length of time as to when the two witnesses will function (1,260 days is 42 months multiplied by 30 days). This reminds us that God is in control of time, and the period here refers to that between the two comings of Jesus. God allows the opponents to trample his people, which is often hard to understand, but it is also good to know that God remains in charge.

What about the two witnesses?
They speak as prophets and dress like prophets. Often a prophet preached about repentance, and this was the message and garb of the two witnesses. We can say that they called people to repentance while themselves living a life of repentance.

Who are they? John answers this question by linking together a range of Old Testament prophets. He refers to Zerubbabel and Joshua (olive trees in Zechariah 4), to Elijah (who prayed for rain to cease for three and a half years), and to Moses (who brought plagues on Egypt). I would suggest that the two witnesses describe in picture form all who declare the message of coming judgement, although mainly it could describe those who do so in an official way.

John points out that they will be opposed by the devil (the one from the bottomless pit) and he will cause the witnesses to be killed. This opposition will happen everywhere, even in Jerusalem which is here linked to pagan nations. When the witnesses are martyred, people will rejoice and despise even the memory of them. Their message was offensive to most people and they will celebrate when Christ’s witnesses die. This kind of celebration was common in the early church and many Christians gave their lives as part of the entertainment offered to the large crowds that gathered for their local games.

Yet the witnesses possess something incredible, which is the resurrection life of the Saviour. After a period, they are raised from the dead, and their resurrection is followed by their promotion to glory. Their experience is similar as to what happened to Jesus when he rose from the dead. Is John here describing part of what Paul details in 1 Thessalonians 4 when he says that after God’s people have been raised from the dead they, as well as those believers living at the time, will ascend to meet the Lord in the air?

John says that the effect of the raising of the witnesses is further judgement (earthquake) and a belated recognition that the message of the witnesses was true (the onlookers are terrified, and affirmed that judgement was coming, but it was too late for repentance). We can see from this response something of the concern that will mark people when they realise that the Judgement Day has arrived.

The Seventh Trumpet – the Day of Judgement
There are several ways by which we can approach the Day of Judgement. We can consider it from what people will be doing when it happens. Jesus tells us that it will be like what happened on the day when the Flood predicted by Noah came. Or we can look at from how the inhabitants of heaven will react when the day arrives. This second viewpoint is what John now details in describing the blowing of the seventh trumpet.

First, we are told that that the kingdom belongs to God the Father and to Jesus – Jesus is described as the Father’s Christ or anointed one. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15 that, after he has overpowered all his enemies and delivered the kingdom to the Father, Jesus will continue to function as the Mediator for ever.

Second, we are told the contents of the trumpet blast, which is that the Father through Jesus will have captured or conquered the world and his eternal reign is about to commence. This is a reminder that the activity of Jesus as the Christ, which began at his ascension, has two phases. One is between his ascension and his return and the other is from the return into the unending future.

Third, the divine person who is praised here by the heavenly authorities (the twenty-four elders – angels with places of significance on thrones) is the Father, although they do not address him as such, perhaps because they do not have the same level of relationship with him that believers have. Or maybe they use the divine names that stress his authority over those who have rebelled against him. He is the sovereign, almighty, eternal God.

Fourth, the attitude of the heavenly authorities towards this moment in the divine plan is stated. They are grateful that the time for the judgement has arrived. Two reasons are given for their response. One is that those who destroyed the earth by their sinful practices will be judged and the other is that God’s people (prophets, saints and those who fear his name) will be rewarded for their service.

The God of the covenant
The next stage in the vision is for John to see into heaven. One item was revealed to him – the ark of God’s covenant. The original ark of the covenant disappeared when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the temple of Solomon. It had been replaced by another one when the temple was rebuilt, but that ark also disappeared when the Romans destroyed the second temple.

The ark of the covenant depicted God’s royal presence with his people. Wherever it was located would indicate those he regarded as his own. In a real sense, it was his throne – the holy of holies was his sacred chamber into which the high priest entered annually on the Day of Atonement. For his people, it was a throne of mercy where he would forgive their sins because atonement had been made.

John here sees that the ark is in heaven, the place where departed believers have gone. God dwells with them and they with him. Of course, there is not a literal ark in heaven. There is no need of a symbol when the reality is there. He rules over them as the merciful Sovereign because of the atonement that was made by Jesus.

The name of the ark points to the covenant God made with his people. In the Bible, there are temporary covenants and there is an eternal covenant. Temporary covenants were made with Noah and Moses, for example, and relate to aspects of life in this world, whether for man in general or for God’s people exclusively. The new covenant, confirmed by the death of Jesus, is an eternal covenant in its effects and its contents reveal that those within it will have true knowledge of God and will be his servants forever.

Why is there a reference to the ark in connection to the second coming of Jesus and the Day of Judgement? One answer could be that it pictures the presence of God with his people as they are about to enter their God-given inheritance. When Israel entered Canaan, they were led by the ark (crossing the Jordan under the command of Joshua) and its position symbolised the commencement of a process of judgement on God’s enemies. Here God is about to judge his enemies before leading his people into their eternal inheritance, which helps us appreciate why the phenomena accompanying the appearance of the ark contains elements that would cause a sense of fear and panic. After all, the presence of the ark was a sign of comfort for God’s people and a sign of condemnation for those who were not.

So, the seven trumpets have been blown? God has preserved his church throughout the varied experiences of judgment that came on the earth and its inhabitants. The inhabitants in heaven celebrate his triumph. Where are we in this chapter? We are not yet at the stage of the seventh trumpet, but we are given a foretaste of what will happen when it is blown. John tells us to remember that despite strong opposition in this world the inhabitants of the city of God are safe and will prosper eternally.

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