God’s Word at Work
The power of God's word
We are waiting for the last trumpet to sound and for the "third woe" to fall. After this the time of tribulation will be over. But we have more to learn about the trumpet phase of history first. As well as being the period of warning judgements it is also the time when God's Word is proclaimed throughout the earth and when the churches must witness.
The sequence of seals (ch.6), trumpets (chs. 8 & 9) and bowls (chs.15 & 16) is interrupted by a number of visions which explain God's purposes and teach us how to live until the great day of Christ comes. Prophecy is not designed to satisfy our curiosity by telling the future. God has spoken to us through prophets in order to teach us wisdom for living and to prepare our faith for whatever we must face.
The Mighty Angel
Who is this angel? In many ways he has the trappings of God's own glory (v. 1-3). The main impression is of vast size. Imagine a man so tall that the clouds provide his clothing and a rainbow his crown and whose greatness enables him to straddle land and sea. His voice has great power and authority. The legs like fiery pillars and the reference to the cloud remind us of the signs of God's presence given to Israel in the wilderness years of the Exodus.
This messenger is not God but has His authority and when he speaks the seven thunders respond. We should probably understand the thunders as God's own voice - see 4:5, 8:5 and Psalm 29:3-9.
The "little scroll" which is open in the messenger's hand suggests that he stands for the Bible, God's book for men. As he speaks from the open book God Himself responds with the seven thunders but John is banned from telling us what the thunders say.
The idea of the prophet knowing more than he is allowed to tell is an interesting one; it shows us that there is much of the future which is meant to be hidden from us. Revelation is not so much a history of the future as an indication of the broad direction in which we are all moving and an insight into the spiritual forces at work.
There is one lesson we can learn from the thunders - that is that God will act in a special way in response to the proclaiming of His own word. The thunders are an answer to the voice of the angel of the scroll.
The scroll is little because it doesn't contain all of God's plan (only Christ reads that scroll - 5:1-5) but it does reveal all we need to know. The bible is not a comprehensive guide to all truth but it is an adequate source for the person seeking God's will. When the scripture is spoken out God will respond with the voice of thunder and achieve His hidden purposes to save and judge the world. The implication is that we, who have God's Word, must teach it to the world if we want to see Him act.
This angel is obviously addressing the whole world when he speaks. This reminds us that the word of God is published to every person alive on the earth and to every nation and ethnic group. There is no one to whom the bible does not speak with divine command - and this is particularly true of the gospel of Christ which is the central message of the scriptures.
The stature and power of the angel enhance our view of scripture. Christians often fail to appreciate the grandeur of God's Word. It is God's chosen means to save and change people and it is by the standard of that word that the world will be judged. In our days some churches have lost confidence in the bible and so many preachers and teachers have lost sight of the glory of this word, to both their own loss and that of those who hear them.
God is at work in two ways in our world. In Christ reigning in providence He is both blessing and warning mankind. In the Holy Spirit through the word of God He is commanding repentance and bringing rebirth to eternal life.
The Little Scroll
This represents the scriptures, the work of the prophets which God inspired. And all these scriptures have a central message and theme which is called the "mystery of God" (v.7). This is a promise developed in the whole bible that God will save men and women and judge the world IN HISTORY. Even though we have had to wait a long time the day is coming when the mystery will be accomplished.
The Christian faith does not belong to a realm separate from this world of facts, science and history. It cannot be reduced to mere Idealism or an other- worldly philosophy. The Christian hope is real and historical. We look back to a real creation by the will of God (even though we may argue over the message of Genesis One), we look back to a real fall from innocence in early history, we look back with gratitude to the sufferings and resurrection of Christ for us in real, historical time and we look forward to the day when He will return, raise the dead and restore all things.
This glorious hope is "the mystery of God ... announced to His servants the prophets." A crucial element in the “mystery” is the way salvation is to be announced to the whole world (not just the Jews) (Eph 3:6). Hence the Angel bestrides the earth and speaks to all people.
The angel makes a solemn oath by Almighty God that there will be no more delay once the seventh trumpet sounds. We are to understand that the last part of this age will come swiftly as the bowls of wrath are poured out in quick succession. God knows that His people find patient endurance a strain and He reassures us that our hopes will be realised swiftly once the end comes. The oath refers to the eternity of God -He who lives for ever and ever- and to his creatorship, and therefore His power over, all things. This God cannot fail to keep His promise. Any oath in this Name by one of His angels will not be empty.
The bible must be thoroughly consumed by John before he can speak with authority as God's prophet. This happened in his life. The Revelation is full of quotations, allusions and ideas from the WHOLE of the bible. John could only become the final prophet of the bible by thoroughly feeding on the scripture.
Many books on the Apocalypse are disappointing because they do not take vs 9-11 seriously enough. They seek meanings for the symbols in pagan literature, their authors' own imagination, naive literalism or by parallels with uninspired "apocalyptic" (i.e. Revelation-like) fables. John is telling us here that the prophecy of the Revelation is the creative fruit of scriptural meditation led by the Holy Spirit.
We learn that John was not just a passive observer and recorder of interesting visions - he was a live participant in the prophetic act.
The symbolism of this book will be in keeping with biblical imagery found in the earlier scriptures but it will be more than just rewriting the prophets. It is fresh prophecy in its own right.
If we, too, want to have a word from God to tell the world, we must do the same as John. We are not prophets in the same way that he was but we do have to speak to the world on God's behalf. Mere hunches, feelings and intuitions will not do. We must hear and understand His Words if we want to speak true words for Him.
There is a double consequence to becoming a bible person. The experience of tasting God's word is sweet and lovely but a part of us reacts against that same word - and obedience will involve a bitter struggle with evil (v10). The bitterness which John feels is also due to the fact that he must speak of God's terrible wrath against his fellow men. The prophets are men in the cross-fire between the curse of God and rejection by men.
The Scope Of God's Word
We are always in danger of assuming that bible reading is a private affair. In fact, the bible is God speaking to the WHOLE WORLD. So John has to prophesy to the world (v11). Have we privatised God too much? The scripture speaks to the whole of life, to the affairs of kings and nations, as well as to my own heart. We are muffling the sound of the Spirit's voice if we are not speaking out His words.
The bible is not a textbook on every subject but it does touch on areas like science, politics, history etc. with authority to return them to God's rule. And it is not bound to any one culture or tradition so no nation may avoid its claim for obedience.
The vision of chapter ten concerning the Angel and Scroll is about God's Word. The first fourteen verses of chapter eleven are about those who speak that Word.
Firstly, though, John must do some measuring. This is similar to passages in Ezekiel (particularly chs 40-42 - see 42:20) and Zechariah (2:1). The measuring of an idealized temple, with this Old Testament background, contains the idea of judging and marking out from God's point of view the holy from the unholy. Measuring the altar and counting the worshippers emphasises the importance which God attaches to true spiritual worship. God seeks those who worship in Spirit and truth.
The casting off of the outer court tells us that not all apparent worship is acceptable to God. The church will always have a compromised worldly fringe of adherents who, though some of them may take leading and central roles, are really only the outer court, superficially devoted. It is quite possible to be outwardly religious but inwardly dominated by the motives and thinking of whichever form of paganism is currently dominant.
Did John have any particular sort of worshipper in mind? The imagery and biblical precedents suggest that he was thinking of those Jews who had refused to accept Jesus as the Christ. Only those who worship through faith in Him are accepted by His Father. This is almost certainly the primary application.
It must surely have a wider application than just the religion of the Jews however. So much human religion is nearly christian and yet does not get to the heart of faith. The outer court includes many adherents to churches, sects and a host of religious practitioners. There are many people who do not enter by Christ, the doorway to God, but who instead dawdle in the outer court of mere religion.
From among the inner court of believers there are just two witnesses. The representation of them as olive trees and lamp-stands harks back to Zechariah ch4 where they pictured Zerubbabel, the King, and Joshua, the High Priest, who together were signs and symbols of Christ (Zechariah 3:8). In the new situation of the church it is faithful witnesses who stand for Christ in the world. Like Him, they suffer resistance and eventually die but they are resurrected by God.
The Period Of Witness
The time of witnessing is 42 months (v 3) and every day of that period the witnesses speak (v 4). The time of their speaking ends when the seventh angel's trumpet sounds and the world is finally judged (see vs 13-19).
Where does the period of 3 1/2 years come from? Does not the church always witness to Christ and His word? There are two possible ways to understand this time. One is to take the timescale literally and push this vision into the future and out of relevance to ourselves. The other way is to search the scriptures for a symbolic meaning.
There is no doubt that we find this time first prophesied in the book of Daniel - in Daniel 9:25-27 (the NIV footnote gives the best reading of v27). The Messiah's ministry is portrayed as lasting seven years. Halfway through he confirms the covenant and puts an end to sacrifice (on the cross). The first half of Christ's ministry did indeed span about three and a half years.
The second half of His ministry is portrayed as also lasting 3 1/2 years until the final outpouring of God's wrath. The same period is mentioned in passing in Daniel 12:7 & 11.
In Revelation we are warned that this second half of Christ's work will in fact take quite a long time. The time between the cross and judgement is actually being "stretched" to fulfil God's saving purposes. The time of Christ's second half of ministry (3 1/2 years = 42 months = 1,260 days) is the time of tribulation which stretches from Christ's ascension to the Day of Judgement.
The "beast that comes up from the Abyss" is first mentioned here and we shall meet him again in chapter thirteen as the beast who rises from the earth. The reference to the Abyss takes our minds back to the fifth and sixth trumpets of chapter nine. It is the same opposition and the same struggle in all three places. For the moment, all we need to know is that hell organises human opposition to the gospel during the time of the churches' witness.
The Place Of Witness
The "great city" in Revelation is the whole of human society. The witnesses are speaking to the whole world (vs 9 & 10). This picture of humanity as a great city organised against God is an Old Testament theme (see, eg, Isaiah 24-26). The "Tale of Two Cities" - Zion and Babylon - reaches its climax and conclusion in the Revelation.
The city is described as (1) Egypt - the place of spiritual bondage and opposing religions, (2) Sodom - the place of violence and sexual crime, (3) Jerusalem - the place of corrupt and disobedient religion. When these names are added together they sum up human rebellion in its various forms.
The witnesses wear sackcloth - a mark of grief, penitence and warning as they speak God's will to a world which often does not want to hear. It is a sober contrast to the opulent decadence suggested by the names of the city. To wear sackcloth in Sodom is to stand out indeed!
The Identity of the Witnesses
The witnesses are obviously like Moses and Elijah and some people think these two great prophets will return. My own view is that the two witnesses represent the FAITHFUL churches who preach the testimony of Christ to the world.
Jesus said his people were to be like lamps giving light to the world (Matt.5:14-16). In the Revelation, lampstands in chapters 1 to 3 represent churches. We should assume the same imagery applies in chapter 11.
Two of the seven churches in chs 2 & 3 were faithful and uncompromised in their testimony and although they seemed weak Jesus promised that He would keep them. If this understanding is correct we need to rethink what ‘Christian witnessing’ really is. It is a corporate rather than individualistic activity. This is why the ethics and doctrine of congregations matter and Jesus spends so much time on them in chs 1 & 3. It is the quality of His witnessing, which He has trusted to his churches which is at stake. This also explains why the church at Ephesus (which seemed to be doing everything right) is threatened with extinction. A church which has fallen out of love with Christ cannot witness effectively, however much ‘good’ it is doing.
I have never heard a talk or read a book on witnessing (from an evangelical viewpoint) which takes the congregation as the main focus of witness. Yet, from experience, I know that faithful and joyful participation in a local church can have a profound effect on neighbours and friends.
Some commentators think that the two witnesses stand for the scriptures themselves (as either the Old and New Testaments or the Law and Prophets - Moses and Elijah). This seems a little forced but there is some truth in the idea. These witnesses, like those great prophets of old, are totally identified by their connection with God's word.
The two witnesses represent the faithful christians who through the centuries have prophesied of the Kingdom of God by telling the gospel and obeying it (v3 seems to be an echo of Acts 1:8). Whilst they have been "sheep for the slaughter" individually their voice has been heard through the world and, as a group, they are indestructible.
The Power Of Witness
These witnesses are indestructible for most of the time. Although there are only two of them (the minimum possible number of witnesses in the law of Moses) they are adequate to the task and they are defended supernaturally (vs 5 & 6). When they are eventually slain they are raised to life and then receive the same divine approval as Christ by being raised and lifted to heaven.
The plagues of vs 6 are probably connected with the plagues of the six trumpets. The witness of the churches (like their prayers) accelerates the process of judgement.
Towards the end of their period a time of defeat followed by a time of triumph is prophesied. It may be that we are being told that a great revival after a time of apparent death awaits the church (there may be a similar hint of this in Romans 11:11-15). This does not mean every believer will die but that the churches as witnessing bodies may be shattered and despised.
It may be better, however, to see a general principle being taught here - telling us that faithful witness in times of apparent failure will be rewarded by God and blessed by conversions. The church has often seemed to die, only to be resurrected by a fresh breath from God.
Church history shows that the progress of the Faith cannot be measured in terms of graphs with neatly rising curves. The model of deaths followed by resurrections seems more fitting. It is no accident that times of spiritual blessing are called "revivals".
The revival of the churches causes an earthquake and part of the great city collapses. The prosperity of Zion means the great city of the earth is crippled and has to give up many of her citizens. Although the survivors give glory to God this does not mean that they are all converted to God. The immediate mention of the third woe suggests that this repentance might be shallow in many of them.
Nevertheless, faithful witness will not be in vain. God will honour and vindicate those who speak and live by the truth and use their testimony to gather people to Himself.