SERMON: A Picture of Heaven (Revelation 5:6-14)
A. THE GALLERY
I’d like you to imagine that you’re approaching an art gallery. It’s a huge place, and as you go in you look at the directory to see where to go first. You see that there are some old masters, there are more modern paintings, there are sculptures, photographs, lithographs, etc. And there are, of course, the mandatory coffee and souvenir shops. But as you progress around, looking at the various exhibits, you take in the creativeness of the artists.
Of course some of the works you see are quite impressive. You marvel at the skill of the artist – the attention to detail – the things that the artist considered important enough to include, and the things left out (not considered important at all). Meanwhile other works… you wonder why they bothered at all. After all, even a child could do better than that.
And maybe as you go around the gallery you feel inspired. You think to yourself: “Perhaps I’ll get that old box of paints out when I get home, and paint something myself.” Well maybe not. But you certainly think of the inspiration that those geniuses must have had to make such great works of art.
2. A Picture of Heaven
However, as you go around there is one painting that stands out amongst all the rest. It’s a painting of a biblical scene – and indeed it’s the one described in Revelation 5:6-14 – a bright and colourful picture. And this is what you see:
It’s a picture of Jesus, with his body showing the scars of death, but being very much alive. And he is there standing in the middle of a huge throne. In his hand there is a scroll, given by God, who is also sitting on the throne. It is an unusual scroll because it’s written on both sides – a scroll that contains the world’s destiny – and it’s sealed with seven seals, which only Jesus is able to open.
Now, surrounding the throne are 4 strange looking creatures (Rev 4:6b-8a), reminiscent of those seen by Ezekiel in his vision of God. And encircling the main throne, there are 24 smaller thrones, with an elder sitting in each one. And each elder is holding a harp, and a golden bowl of incense.
And as you look at what the creatures and the elders are doing, you notice that they are getting off their thrones to prostrate themselves before Jesus, and breaking out into a mighty chorus of praise.
But that’s not all, because this picture is full of singing. Surrounding the elders are a mass of angels too numerous to count. And joining with them are more voices – more people and creatures joining in, as all creation joins in the singing.
Now what a wonderful picture! And what a full picture too! It’s a picture of God’s people worshipping Jesus – the lamb who was slain, who is yet to open the seals. It’s a picture of people and creatures giving him due honour and glory for who he is, and for what he has done. Indeed his honour and glory is being acknowledged by the whole creation, whether they believed in him or not during their own lifetimes – believer and unbeliever alike.
It’s a wonderful picture. And as you look at it, as you look at the complexity and detail, you can’t help be impressed by the workmanship of the painting – the attention to detail. And as you leave the gallery, with all the other wonderful works that you have seen, you can’t help but remember this one picture. Indeed, you just can’t get it out of your mind.
Now of course the quality of any painting and its content are one thing. But the emotions they can stir up, that’s another thing all together. And the subject of this picture is one that is screaming out for a response.
So, how do you respond to such a picture?
Well, if you’re anything like me, what I feel is totally inadequate. There just seems to be a huge gulf between my efforts of praise and worship, and the praise and worship I see in the picture. Now I know that I cannot match what goes on in heaven until I get there. But there is still one huge gap. And as I think more and more about that picture, I can’t help think of what those elders were doing. They sang, they presumably played their harps, and they prostrated themselves before the throne. They did so because they recognised Jesus’ authority, and they did so in acknowledgment of their own relationship with Jesus, the Son of God.
But in regard to the singing, I can’t help but wonder just how many times I have mumbled the words to a hymn – times when my heart wasn’t in it. Times when I haven’t sung with gusto, in a manner fitting for God.
After all the issue isn’t whether I can sing or not, only with the effort I put in. I’m not singing to entertain others, I’m singing to worship God.
b). Playing an Instrument
In regarding to the playing of the harps, I can’t help but wonder just how many times I’ve failed to give my all in worship of God. Of course, in human terms, we can wonder about how all 24 elders could have such musical skills, but then this is a picture of heaven. Despite that, they were giving their all – they were holding nothing back when it came to worship. And I wonder how often I could say the same. I wonder how often I have held back the gifts and abilities I have, that God has given me, rather than dedicate all I have to God.
c). Prostrating Oneself
And in regard to prostrating oneself… well, I can’t help wonder in this age whether we’ve lost something about God. After all, when was the last time that you or I witnessed Christians prostrating themselves before God in church? For one thing the furniture doesn’t allow for it. And I certainly can’t recall one instance of anyone bringing a prayer mat with them to worship, me included.
It seems to me that in accepting God in terms of being a loving Father, we seem to have lost the idea of his strength, his power, and his awesomeness. The fact that he is our maker and our judge – a God to be feared. A God by his very being demands being worshiped in every way we can, including putting ourselves in a position of submission and humility.
2. Other Interpretations
Of course, that’s me, and that is what looking at that picture of heaven has inspired me to consider as I looked at it and considered what the painting was all about. However, you may have different interpretations, which may be equally as valid.
For example, in that picture there is the fulfilment of all Christian’s hopes. The fulfilment of what all Christians should be working towards. The reward, if you like, for being faithful (if imperfect) servants.
When this world is done, being present with Jesus, in heaven, surrounding the throne, and knowing that when the scrolls are unsealed, all the past hurts will be dealt with, and those who have been faithful will remain in eternity.
In other words, it’s a picture which gives believers hope to continue. A glimpse of what is waiting in the end, and the encouragement to stick with it, and not to fall away.
Alternatively, for those who have suffered pain and a lifetime of hardships, where the weaknesses of our bodies and the difficulties we’ve had with relationships, or whatever, have been a real burden, then this picture is one of an end to all those sorts of things. An illustration of a future time where for believers all those hardships will be gone. It will be like the sufferings that they faced never happened.
And these images are valid too. After all, the picture was painted for a particular purpose. And that was with the specific purpose: to inspire a relatively small, scattered and persecuted church; to give hope to a people who were down, few in number, and fighting for their very existence. It was painted for a people who were desperately in need of guidance, and to encourage the sharing of God’s vision. And it was painted because of the need to admonish those who were falling away from Christian principles. To correct those who had let their enthusiasm for the gospel wane, and to deal with those who were leading believers astray.
This painting, then, is a very powerful picture. A picture of what awaits the faithful in heaven. A reward for the faithful – the light at the end of the tunnel. However, it is also a goal and something to strive towards.
Of course, it is only one picture, and to get a proper idea about heaven other pictures need to be considered too. But it does rather contrast the gulf between this world and the next. And it does set the standard for all believers to follow.
Now, how often have you heard people say these things, particularly in the context of the church? “I can’t sing,” “I can’t play an instrument,” “And my body – well, I couldn’t bend it if I tried.” “I’ve got no special talents and abilities.” “I’ve got nothing to offer the church.”
Yet, whilst some of that might be true, the painting in heaven includs myriads of people and creatures singing with “full voice”, not just a whisper. All of the elders played harps. And all prostrated themselves before their God and Saviour.
Now obviously with resurrected bodies anything is possible. But that doesn’t discount the fact that they all gave their all.
And that was exactly the intention of the picture in the first place. Trying to encourage a small, struggling, scattered and persecuted church to give their all, regardless of their situation. Giving them a picture of the future, the future reward for faithfulness, whilst at the same time giving them a goal that they could work towards.
Today, we’ve been through an art gallery, and we’ve focussed on a picture of heaven – a picture of Jesus on his throne, surrounded by people and beings worshipping him.
It’s a picture not only of a time to come, but it should be a picture that should reflect what we do now, and the direction in which we are going as well.
As we look at that picture, one more time, then, what is our response? Are we inspired by the painting? Inspired to live in today’s world knowing what is to come? Are we inspired enough to do a reality check on the level of our commitment and devotion now? And are we inspired to check just how far along the road we’ve come to meet God’s goals?
Well, I hope so. But that means we need to ask ourselves some serious questions. Questions like: “Just what sort of God am I worshipping?” “What does he really mean to me?” “Am I holding back from giving God everything that is his due?” “Am I worshipping him as I should?” “Am I giving him everything that I can, and everything that he deserves?” And, “Is the picture of heaven what I’m working towards, or do I have another agenda?”
Posted: 20th January 2016
© 2016, Brian A Curtis
SERMON: A Second Picture of Heaven (Revelation 7:9-17)
Getting nervous about a big event is quite normal. Because, whether we like to admit it or not, doing something different, doing something for the first time, or doing something where there is pressure to perform or succeed, is never an easy situation to face. Indeed, facing a situation that is unknown or where the outcome is not clear—whether you will fail or succeed—can be fraught with nervous tension. And being in a position where one has to do things that don’t necessarily come naturally is not always easy either.
Being nervous about a big event, then, is quite common. And indeed it can affect us all.
Now, of course, what we consider a big event will differ from person to person. For some it could be standing up and saying something in front of a small group of people, while for others it could be driving a Formula 1 car or flying to the moon. But regardless of what it is, we all have times when we are nervous. And most of us will have times when we wished that someone else was doing what it is that we need to do.
B. THE GREAT MULTITUDE
But regarding big events, there is perhaps no bigger event for us to face than Judgement Day. And we have a description of what it’s going to be like in the passage from Revelation. For what we have described, is a great crowd of people going through the process of being judged by Jesus. They had come to be judged, and they were face to face with Jesus who had the judgement scroll in his hand. It was sealed with seven seals, and he’d already opened the first six. And now the seventh and final seal is about to be opened.
But do we get any indication of nerves or stress from the crowd? No! Far from it. In fact we get the exact opposite. What we get is the impression of a crowd that wasn’t concerned about Judgement Day at all.
And why was this so? Well, this is what the Apostle John saw and described.
1. What They Were Doing (9-12)
John saw a multitude, too large for anyone to count. A multitude that came from all nations, tribes, peoples, and language. In other words this was a complete group. All the faithful who had ever been, are now, and who are to come, were all gathered together. And what they were doing, was that they were standing before the throne and before the Lamb of God.
The people were dressed in white robes. White, the symbol of glory and victory, not just the colour of every day clothing. And they were surrounded by palms—emblems of triumph, symbolising that they been justified, because they had put their faith in Jesus Christ. And they stood there before God in perfect righteousness.
And with a loud voice, they ascribed salvation to God and to the Lamb. There were no doubts. They were convinced about where they fitted in to the order of things. They had lived their lives believing that there was no other way, but to worship God and to accept God’s solution of salvation. And though they had died—and the time of judgement had come—they were convinced that everything was OK, that the promises of God were true. And that when Jesus opened the seventh seal, what would happen is that those who had been faithful would continue to enjoy life with God in heaven. And at the same time, those who hadn’t been faithful would be punished and get their due. They would be excluded from heaven and condemned to everlasting condemnation in hell.
And as the multitude stood around the throne, unconcerned, singing their hearts out, singing praises to God and to the lamb, the angels joined in.
For the angels, who had been with God all the time, didn’t hesitate either. They agreed with the sentiments of the multitude. They prostrated themselves and worshipped too. “Amen!” they said to the words that were being sung.
And they then went on to expand on what the multitude was singing. They ascribed seven qualities to God: blessing, glory, wisdom, thanksgiving, honour, power, and might. But they weren’t just describing bits of blessing, and bits of glory, and bits of… rather that God encapsulated the lot. They were the ultimate eternal truths which God expressed in all their fullness. And that he would continue to express in their fullness throughout eternity.
2. Who They Were (13-14)
It’s a wonderful image. A multitude not concerned with the breaking of the seventh seal or of Judgement Day at all. Indeed, a group confident in knowing exactly where they stood with God, expressing their thanks. But not with a nervous half-baked response wondering what was going to come next. No! These people knew where they stood. They were confident in their faith, and they gave their all.
But what was so special about them? Who were they? Well, they were none other than every true believer that has ever lived. They were those who had walked this world, with all its difficulties, traumas, and tribulations. They were those who had faced the constant tribulations of life which are part and parcel of the world that we live in, where evil is constantly warring against God. But they were those who had accepted in their own life times their inability to be acceptable to God based on their own abilities. And as a consequence, they had trusted in God, through Jesus, to see them through.
This group, then, were the triumphant ones. The ones who had had their robes washed clean and made white in the blood of the Lamb. And as a consequence, it was only on the grounds of Jesus’s death that they were able to stand before the throne properly clothed, confident in their place before God.
3. What They Were Doing (15-16)
And as a consequence of their earthly convictions, they were there before the throne, serving God day and night. They were being active in heaven in God’s sanctuary itself. A place where all God’s people are priests and enjoy the immediate presence of God.
A place where the tribulations of the past are no longer present. There were no unsatisfied desires, no hunger, no thirst, no sunstroke, no burning heat, no whatever past torments people had faced.
4. What Jesus Had Won for Them (17)
And the reason for the confidence? The reason for their lack of nerves at the moment before the seventh seal on the judgement scroll was opened . . . ? Well the reason was Jesus, the Lamb.
The faithful had—before they had died in this world—accepted that Jesus had the answers to life. They had believed that if they followed him, he would be their shepherd. And now they had died and were facing judgement itself.
Yes, they knew they hadn’t been perfect. They knew that they had done some pretty rotten things, some very unchristian things. But they had accepted Jesus as their Lord and saviour. And just as they had accepted Jesus as the sacrificial lamb in this world—as the shepherd who would look after his sheep—so in heaven they were convinced that he was still who he said he was. That they had been right in believing that there was no other way to God—and to heaven—except through faith in Jesus Christ.
And as a consequence, what they were doing there, now in heaven, even before the seventh seal was opened, was confidently enjoying warm fellowship with God, with his tender concern making complete provision for their every need.
Now it always seems to me that the book of Revelation is one of those books in the bible which is often overlooked and misunderstood, particularly when it comes to its imagery and language. Which is why so many people have a difficult time understanding what it means.
And yet the image that is presented to us, reveals what it means to be confident in the faith. So in regard to this and other aspects of our faith, the book of Revelation can be very helpful in our Christian walk.
1. Confidence in Faith
Because, despite everything, the reality is that there are many Christians who are not confident in their faith. There are many Christians who are not sure what will happen to them when they die.
So in this regard the words of Jesus can be helpful. Word’s like: “I am the bread of life. Anyone who comes to me will never be hungry; anyone who believes in me will never be thirsty.” (John 6:35). “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you knew me, you would know my Father as well” (John 14:6-7a). And “This is the will of the one who sent me: that of all the people that he has given me, I shall lose none of them, but I shall raise them up on the last day” (John 6:39).
Now all those words of Jesus can be helpful. However, the picture of the faithful in heaven in Revelation, expressing little concern of what will happen when the seventh seal of the judgement scroll is opened, gives us a graphic illustration of what the faithful can expect after death. Indeed it gives the words of Jesus some flesh.
For sure those in this life time who have not accepted Jesus as their Saviour should have serious concerns about life after death, but not believers.
Now I’m not saying that we shouldn’t get nervous in this life. After all, we should all be concerned about our actions and our failure to act in this world. But when it comes to life after death, believers really don’t have anything to be concerned about at all. And that’s because believers have already been judged. Or rather, because Jesus has already been judged on our behalf for our sins.
2. Active in Faith
But as an adjunct to that, being confident about the next life, has ramifications for this. Because this particular passage tells us much about what is expected of a believer in this world too.
And again, Jesus’s comments about the things that he expected all believers to do is relevant. He quoted from the Old Testament: “You are to worship the Lord your God and serve him only” (Matthew 4:10b). He commissioned his disciples: “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever disbelieves will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16). He encouraged his followers to show compassion: “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink; I was a stranger and you entertained me; I was poorly clothed and you gave me clothing; I was sick and you looked after me; I was in prison and you came to visit me” (Matthew 25:35-36). And he even encouraged people to care for those who were difficult to love: “Love your enemies, do good, and lend expecting to get nothing back” (Luke 6:35). In other words Jesus’s words point to the seriousness by which all Christians should take the expression of their faith here and now.
Jesus made it clear that the Christian faith is active, not passive. And whilst many people believe that when it comes to heaven, heaven will be a quiet place, a place of rest and inactivity, nothing could be further from the truth. Indeed, in this picture from Revelation we have a picture of God’s people being active day and night and worshipping God with all their worth.
And if that’s the kind of activity that is expected then, then surely that reinforces what is expected of us in the here and now. And particularly so, in a time when the troubles and traumas of this world are still here, and when there are still opportunities left to learn, and the need for souls to be saved.
3. Expressing Our Faith
And most importantly, there is the most important aspect of Christian life, which comes out in this vision of Judgement Day. And that is the worship of God, and particularly the worship of God in a communal sense.
The images from Revelation are of people who are enthusiastic and enjoy giving God his due. They are not of people who have been coerced, or feel obligated, or just feel as though it is their duty to go through the motions. They are not people who are bored with worship. But they are of people who see worship as the most important expression of their faith. But they are not doing it an individualistic way, they are doing it as a community of like-minded people gathered together.
This image of heaven is a statement about what is the most important, essential ingredient of the Christian’s faith. Indeed, in may well be why the first four of the ten commandments all express an attitude of correct response to God. Commandment one: “You are to have no other gods before me.” Commandment two: “You are not to make for yourself an idol in the likeness of anything in the heavens above or on the earth beneath or in the waters under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them”. Commandment three: “You are not misuse the name of the LORD your God”. And commandment four: “Observe the Sabbath day. Set it apart as holy, as the LORD your God has commanded you. You are to labour for six days and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the LORD your God” (Deuteronomy 5:6-15).
The image of heaven, then, reminds us that the most important thing for any believer is to worship God. And the need to meet together as a community to do that very thing is an essential part of that expression.
Yes, the things that Jesus told us to do: To care for one another; to love one’s enemies; etc., are important. But the basic expression of any Christian’s faith is nothing less than the need to give God his due. Because without that deep-seated foundation to faith, the rest will have no depth, will tend to lose their true purpose, and will easily fall away.
Getting nervous before a big event may be something which affects us all from time to time. But there is no need for any Christian to be nervous when it comes to Judgement Day, perhaps the greatest event we will ever face. It is the day that we face God in heaven, and the day we will be asked to account for ourselves for all the things we have done and failed to do. And yet, if we have faith in Jesus, we can be confident of being accepted by God.
This passage from Revelation, where all believers are gathered confidently together for the opening of the seventh and final seal, shouldn’t make us nervous. Indeed, it simply illustrates the truth of the promises of God. That those who have faith have nothing to worry about, because Jesus has already been judged in our place.
This passage doesn’t teach us anything different to what Jesus had taught before. But it does put his teaching into pictorial form. And in doing so, it illustrates that Christians should be a people who are confident in their faith, knowing where they are headed, and what will happen to them when they die.
It also teaches that as a consequence of that firm belief, Christians should be active in ministry here and now: Caring for the poor, bridging the gaps of hatred, and giving others the opportunity to join the people of faith. It also illustrates the importance of participating as a community in the regular worship of God, as the primary focus of our very being.
Posted 5th September 2019
© 2019, Brian A Curtis
DEVOTION: First and Last (Revelation 22:12-16)
Just as there is a first time for everything, so is there a last time. And just as that is true for life in general, so is it true of the bible too.
Because at the beginning of the bible, there is the story of Adam and Eve, with their act of disobedience, and their subsequent punishment—being thrown out of the Garden of Eden. And at the end we have the story of Jesus coming again, with the story of everyone being given their due.
So those who have sinned, but have not been cleansed, are excluded and locked outside the New Jerusalem. And those who have made mistakes, but have been cleansed through their faith in Jesus Christ, enter to be with God forever.
In regard to God’s judgement, then, the bible ends where it begins, with man’s sin and God’s punishment.
And that’s odd, in a way, because in our society, there is a greater belief in the concept of Jesus being gentle, meek, and mild. Indeed, the popular belief is that when we die, we will be reconciled with our loved ones in heaven, whether they (or we) believed or not. There is that idea that when people leave this earth they automatically go to a better place.
As a consequence, there is a great difference between what the bible—and the Christian faith—teaches, and what people generally believe. And sadly that means when the majority come face to face with Judgement Day, they will be excluded from the New Jerusalem.
And that leaves all Christians and the church with a challenge. Because the challenge is to confront the people of this world with God’s plan before it is too late.
The question is, though, not “How does one do it?”—because it only takes a willingness to do it and leave God to do the rest—but “When does one do it?” Because the trend amongst many churches is to leave it to last. People don’t want to get uncomfortable; people don’t want to do anything until they’ve had meetings and been trained (and those are usually just delaying tactics.) People don’t want to do anything that involves change or anything that makes them uncomfortable.
Unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury. Because only when we put other people’s spiritual welfare first, are we likely to grow as individuals. And only when we put other people’s spiritual welfare first, is the church likely to grow.
There is a place for doing things first and last. And we need to get our priorities right.
Posted: 10th March 2020
© 2020, Brian A Curtis