March 6, 2009
In Revelation, John described Jesus as the Lamb on the Throne. What can we learn about Jesus from this picture? Alistair Begg tackles this question, teaching that when we consider the sacrificial imagery in John’s words, we can see Jesus’ ultimate triumph over sin and death. As our slain and victorious Lamb, He has purchased salvation for all men and women, from every tribe, tongue, and nation, who believe in Him.
Sermon Transcript: Print
Revelation 5:1: “Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, ‘Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?’ But no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.’
“Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. He had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He came and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song:
‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased men for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation.
You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign on the earth.’
“Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang:
‘Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!’
“Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing:
‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever.
“The four living creatures said, ‘Amen.’ And the elders fell down and worshiped.”
Father, we simply ask now for your help, that you will come and quicken our minds that we might understand; that you will open our hearts to your truth; that you will cause, as we have sung, our eyes to see; and in seeing that we might believe, and in believing that we might obey, and that in obeying we might live for the praise of your glory. So help us in these moments, for we certainly need it. And we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Well, we come to the end of our series as we’ve sought to turn our eyes upon Jesus, to see him, first of all, as a true Prophet and as a Suffering Servant and as a conquering King, and to see him as our Great High Priest; and now, to send one another out with our eyes truly lifted up, to see him as a Lamb upon the throne. In turning to the final book of the Bible, we turn to a book that is for some people avoided at all costs, and for other people a focus of almost their entire preoccupation. And by the time this study ends, you will probably have me pegged somewhere in between those two things, and if you do, then you will be right.
Let me just say to you, though, that it is my firm conviction after reading the book of Revelation and studying my Bible over many years, that we ought not to regard the book of Revelation as if it were a book of riddles, as if it were some kind of theological Rubik’s Cube that certain people who have fertile imaginations are able to unpack for us and make all the colors turn to the right shade on every side. And the way to ensure that we do not go wrong is to do what we’ve tried to do on each occasion, and to remind ourselves that the Bible was written first of all not to us, but that the Bible was written, in this instance, to first-century believers who were being buffeted by and persecuted by the authorities of their day. What possible benefit would it be to those people in those circumstances to have a book written to them that was only of significance in 2009? Not a lot. Therefore, it is imperative that we understand that John is writing to an historic context, to a group of people who lived in real places at a real time, and he does so in order to assure them.
Goldsworthy, who is one of my favorite Australian theologians, says, “John’s first concern is not to minister to armchair prophets in some far‑off age, but to the battlers of his own day who struggle to reconcile the fact of their suffering with the fact of Christ’s victory over sin and Satan and death.” And he introduces himself, in chapter 1, as both their brother and companion in sufferings—and if you care to check that either now or later, you will find in verse 9 him doing so: “I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus….” And he tells them, “This is where I was. I was on the little island of Patmos,” off the coast of modern-day Turkey. If you go out there into the Aegean Sea, you can find this island—some of you will have gone and visited it. And why was John on this particular island? Well, he tells us, still there in verse 9, that, “I was on this island because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” It would seem that he had been banished there on account of his commitment to the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. And so, he doesn’t write to them as an armchair theologian, he doesn’t write to them speculative material that may be of only passing interest to them, but he writes in order that, in the circumstances of their day, they might understand who Jesus is as triumphant Lord and King.
Think about it: the gospel had been preached, and they had believed. That’s why they were the recipients of this letter. The gospel that had been preached to them was the historic data concerning the person and work of Jesus. The apostles had not gone around primarily to give their testimonies, although they were quite free in sharing their own encounters with Jesus, but they had gone to make sure that their congregations and their listeners understood that Jesus Christ, as Messiah, had to suffer. In fact, if you trace Paul’s preaching throughout Acts, you will find that this is his almost undeniable pattern: he goes into the synagogues, and on the Sabbath Day he reasons with them from the Scriptures, showing them that the Messiah had to suffer and die. That’s what he did in the first part of his sermon. And after he had worked his way through the Bible—the then Bible, the Old Testament Scriptures—and he had shown them from the Scriptures that the Messiah had to suffer and die, he then said to them, “And this Jesus is that Messiah—this Jesus is that Messiah. This historical Jesus, whom you have seen and many of you have heard, is the Messiah God.” And it was that which was marking the apostolic proclamation: they were preaching Jesus who was crucified, dead, buried, raised, had appeared, and had ascended; and these first-century believers had been on the receiving end of this and had come to entrust themselves to it.
They believed that as the ascended Lord and King, this Jesus was fully in control of all circumstances.
So, what did they believe? They believed that as the ascended Lord and King, this Jesus was fully in control of all circumstances. They were convinced that in him all things hold together, as we thought about in one of our earlier studies from Colossians 1. They were absolutely convinced that even as he had gone, so he would return. And as they got up to a new day, they looked, as it were, into the future, wondering when he would appear. His will was being established throughout the whole earth. That was their conviction. But when they actually looked at their circumstances, their circumstances were so vastly different from their convictions. The things that they told one another, the things that they affirmed for one another, the things that they told their friends and their neighbors, none of it appeared to be happening; and scoffers abounded.
Remember in 2 Peter, “The scoffers will come,” Peter says, and they appear and they show up and say the same thing all the time: “Where is the promise of his coming? You say this Jesus is coming? Where is he? Everything continues the way it has been going for ages. I mean, we’ve been looking around, and we don’t see any evidence of it all.” And the thing that made it so galling was that in one sense, they were absolutely right—because there was no obvious evidence of the fact that he was about to return. And the church, i.e., the believers, who are the recipients of this letter, they were small. There was an addition here and there, but there was nothing of significance happening. And while they were small and beleaguered and persecuted, the empires of man were growing in strength and in significance. And as the Roman Empire grew in strength and significance, so the sense of aggravation and persecution, that was thrust upon the people of God, increased in its intensity. And when they gathered for their little services, it seemed so paltry in contrast to the idol worship that filled their cities. And so, if anybody had come in from another part of the world and looked at it and said, “Where do you think the future’s going?” anybody would have said, “Well, I think I’ll go with the Roman Empire.” “Well, what do you think about the Christians? They’re following Jesus of Nazareth; apparently, he’s raised from the dead, he ascended into heaven, and he’s coming back.” And some of them said, “Well, it sounds all fine and well, but I don’t see any evidence of it at all.”
It’s not hard to imagine that at the breakfast table, men and women of average faith would have had occasion to look at one another and wonder, to say to each other, “Is this faith of ours just a private matter after all? Is this faith of ours just sufficient for worshipping in the Methodist church hidden away from all the pubs, and all the politics, and all the mighty influence of the nations of the world? Is our Christian faith up to the demands and challenges that confront us in this Roman Empire with this emperor worship?” And while they affirmed in their testimony the lordship of Jesus and suffered in their lives for that same testimony, doubtless the Evil One would come and insinuate that they had actually bought into a great delusion, that they were just, after all, a funny little group of people that had hitched their wagon to a strange story about a strange man at a strange moment in time, and if they just held their breath it would all be finished before too long, and they could get back to whatever it was they were doing before.
I always laugh when people tell me, “Oh, I’d love to go back to the church in the first century. That must have been terrific back there, you know.” Would you? Would you like to have gone back to that? Why? So that you could be persecuted? So you could be thrown to the lions? So you could gather with a small group of people and stand on your tiptoes and look out over the future and wonder about these very things?
Now, with all of that by way of background, this is the context in which the great drama, this great theological comic book, this great video, this great video game that is here in the book of Revelation, is given to these people. And it’s very important that we understand this, because in the majority of cases, most of us have been brought up with a view of Revelation that is entirely distinct from that—some think it’s all about us to begin with, and it’s all about them. Well, in actual fact, until we know that it is not about us, but it’s about Jesus and it’s about the people to whom it was written, we will immediately go completely wrong. Leon Morris, who’s an excellent fellow—Anglican, you will remember—says—also an Australian—“to a church perplexed by such problems Revelation was written…. It was sent to a little, persecuted, frustrated church, one which did not know what to make of the situation in which it found itself.” And John is taken up, and on the Lord’s Day he speaks and prophesies and finally writes. So, let me say it for the last time to make a point: we dare not regard the book of Revelation as an intellectual puzzle sent to a relaxed church with time on its hands and an inclination for solving mysteries—as if somehow or another, the book of Revelation is for the sort of people who like theological crossword puzzles.
“Well,” you say, “if this is the case, what possible relevance is there in such a book? If these people are a small beleaguered church, if they are persecuted from without, if there is idol worship, if there is emperor worship and everything else, here we are in Sidmouth on the South Coast, what possible relevance could it have for us, then, in reading it? Aren’t we supposed to read about it and just think about time immemorial?” No. Are we both living in the same world? Could you honestly ask what possible relevance a book written to a small, increasingly insignificant church is? In a world that is increasingly oppressive to that church, that is increasingly interested in the worship of everyone and everything except Jesus Christ as Lord of all?
No, I suggest to you that the message of the book of Revelation—the main thing and the plain thing of the book of Revelation—is exactly what is needed by the church in Britain in our day. Because here we are, and what are we facing? Economic gloom, human deprivation, a world at war on multiple fronts, issues of morality and security and personal identity unravel the minds of men and women and threaten to undo them; and in the midst of all of that, there are companies of God’s people because he has purposed to put us there, and in all of that threatening environment—and, increasingly in our generation, increasingly secular environment—we, then, turn to our Bibles.
And I don’t know how you feel, but it is not uncommon for me to feel as if I were almost a cog in a vast machinery; that the decisions that are made in London, or are made in Kabul, or are made in Washington, or are made in Delhi, India somehow or another really hold sway, and that there’s nothing whatsoever that I can possibly do about it. I’m simply caught up in the immensity of it all, and the people who apparently know a lot aren’t smart enough to know how much they do not know. And I thought that question time last night made that point perfectly, if you stayed up for it; because I think the prevailing theme that ran through it was essentially this: “It’s a pity this is called question time, because we ain’t got no answers.” And they kept looking at one another and saying, “Well, of course, nobody really knows this. No one’s ever experienced this,” or, “We don’t really understand this.” It’s like, “Oh, for goodness sake! Somebody answer a question, please! Ask them a question they can answer!”
But don’t be alarmed. You get yourself some old music from the sixties, that’ll help you through. Get yourself some Simon and Garfunkel, he’ll help you out. Remember? Remember how he handled it all, all that sense of alienation in the sixties?
Through the corridors of sleep
Past the shadows dark and deep
My mind dances and leaps in confusion.
I don’t know what is real,
I can’t touch what I feel,
And I hide behind the shield of my illusion.
So I’ll continue to continue to pretend
That my life will never end
And that flowers never bend with the rainfall.
The mirror on my wall
Casts an image dark and small,
But I’m not sure at all it’s my reflection.
I’m blinded by the light
Of God and truth and right,
And I wander in the night without direction.
So I’ll continue to continue to pretend
That my life will never end
And that flowers never bend with the rainfall.
And no matter if you’re born
To play the king or pawn,
For the line is thinly drawn ’tween joy and sorrow.
And so my fantasy becomes reality
And I must be what I must be and face tomorrow.
And so I’ll continue to continue to pretend
That my life will never end
And that flowers never bend with the rainfall.
It’s pretty classic, actually. It stands the test of time, doesn’t it? Good lyrics always will, hymn lyrics or secular song lyrics.
Now, it is in that environment that you and I live, and it is in that environment, to some extent, that those who were the recipients of this letter live. And so perhaps we, like them, would find ourselves saying in circumstances such as this, “If only somehow or another, somebody could go behind the scenes. If only somebody could go back there into the book of destiny. If only somebody could go, as it were, and have a little look at the scroll of human destiny. If only somebody could catch a glimpse into the future and find out, really, what’s going on, and then they don’t have to tell us everything, but if only they could tell us something. That would be really terrific.”
And that is exactly what we have. John is exactly in that place: “I turned ‘round …”—Verse 10—“On the Lord’s Day”—of chapter 1—“I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a voice like a trumpet, which said: ‘Write on a scroll what you see and send it out to the seven churches.’” And what we discover when you read these early chapters is that John is picked up and transported, not to a never-never land, but, if you like, to the “ever-ever land” of God’s eternal values and judgment. And in 4:2, here we find him before a throne that is “higher than all the thrones that this world has known.” (That’s another great Getty song, “A Higher Throne.”) “At once I was in the Spirit, and there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it.”
And then in chapter 5 as we have seen, and in verse 4, now we find him confronted by this circumstance which brings him absolutely to tears, because he discovers that there is “no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth” who can open the scroll or look inside it. And there he is depicted as “weeping and weeping” because “no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll and look inside.”
But wait a minute! Just when it seems as if all is lost, he gets a tap on the shoulders: “And one of the elders said to me, ‘Don’t weep. Look! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed.’” I’ll just give you one cross-reference back to last night—49:10 of Genesis: “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs and the obedience of the nations is his.” See, what John needed was not new information. And neither do you! If you constantly think that what you need to keep you stable in your Christian life or to advance you in your Christian life is new information, I want to tell you that the vast majority of occasions when you feel that way, you’re looking in the wrong direction. What John needed is what we need: to be reminded of what we know. Because we usually go wrong by forgetting the basics. That’s why our mothers always said to us, “Did you remember to …? Did you remember to …?” When you were over at your auntie’s house and you came back, she said, “Did you remember to say thank you?” You didn’t need a fresh revelation or something. You didn’t need a star up above her garden. You just need to remember. And the tap on the shoulder comes: “Don’t weep. Look, the Lion of the tribe of Judah. The Root of David. He has triumphed, and he is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”
Well, this is just terrific, isn’t it? God has provided in Jesus the solution to the tears that John is crying, and God has provided in Jesus the tears which we cry—the tears of fearfulness, the tears that are represented when we feel as though the whole world presses in against us; when we feel ourselves to be beleaguered and small and ineffectual and somehow or another marginalized by everything else that goes on around us. And it’s nice when God comes and gives us a tap on the shoulder and turns us to our Bibles and says, “Are you forgetting something? That the Lion of the tribe of Judah has actually triumphed? That he is King?” In other words, it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. That’s what Peter had said on the day of Pentecost: “I’m here to tell you,” he says, “that Jesus is alive, and the reason he’s alive is because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. He has triumphed over death and over Satan and over hell.”
And so, John looks. He’s told to look: “Don’t weep. See!” And then look at verse 6, is it? “Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing to the center of the throne, and encircled by the four living creatures.” “See the Lion.” He looks and sees a Lamb. Now, some home Bible study groups will go immediately south at this point, because someone will start to ask, “Well, I thought he was supposed to look and see a Lion. Why did he see a Lamb?” And then Mrs. Jenkins, she’ll say, “Well, I’d like to tell you how I feel about that,” and then you’ll have to ask her to go and make coffee, ’cause you don’t really care how she feels about that, and unless there’s somebody there to help us out, we’re in deep and dire trouble—and especially if we have a Rubik’s Cube expert in the room, you might as well fold your Bible up and head for the hills.
No, John looks and he sees a Lamb. And we, like him, see the Lion of Judah only as he comes to us as a slain Lamb. We see the Lion enshrined in the Lamb. And that’s why in the second half of verse 9, when they’re singing their new song, it is only in Christ crucified that they were going to discover the answer to their alienation and to their dislocation: “because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased man for God.” Because, you see, the secrets of their world in the first century, and the secrets of the world in our century, belong to God, and none of us can pry into them. None of us knows what a day brings. None of us knows what will happen tonight during the night. Who knows what this next few months holds for us in Western culture? Especially if we feel it to be a dark and an unknown future!
But we don’t need Jesus, as it were, to come in order that we might be identifying the fact that our world is full of troubles; we can do that ourselves. We can look around and understand that, even as the recipients of this letter could. They didn’t need anybody to appear out of the darkness and say, “You know, you’re in a very dreadful situation with all of this persecution and everything that’s going on.” They understood that. They didn’t need Jesus to come and give them the information; they needed Jesus to come and give them the explanation, so that their troubles would not bring them down, perplex them, and overwhelm them.
Now, the Lamb which is presented to us here is there as a further reminder to us of all of his humility—that Jesus is the one who became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. And when you stand back from this and you view it, you will see so clearly that what John is doing is he’s reaching back into the Old Testament and he’s picking up Old Testament pictures. He’s picking up the picture from the Passover in Exodus chapter 12, he’s picking up the picture of the suffering servant from Isaiah 53. Because the Old Testament worshipper was accepted on the basis of the sacrificed lamb; and the New Testament worshipper—we as worshippers—are accepted on that same basis.
Now, if you look, you will see that it says—and in the NIV it reads, interestingly—“and I looked and I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain.” One of the other versions says, “standing, as though it had been slain.” And what is described here is the fact of the wounds in the Lamb representing Christ’s death by which he has achieved redemption; but this Lamb “stands,” representing the triumph of his resurrection. And what you actually have here is the genesis for the phraseology in a hymn that we’ve sung a couple of times this week, “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” and the notion of, “rich wounds yet visible above, in beauty glorified”: “And I saw the Lamb, and he stood there looking as if he had been slain. And he was encircled by the four living creatures, and he had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth.”
Here we go again: “Mrs. Jenkins, put the coffee on!” The seven horns are an indication, at least, of his power and of his majesty; the seven eyes, a reminder of his knowledge and of his omniscience. It is always a dreadful pity if we stall in circumstances like this and miss what is clear and plain and central. And what is clear and plain and central is that this Lamb is confronting these readers as the only one who is able to take the scroll and open it and explain human destiny, and as the one who has died, the only one that is able to deal with sin and death and hell; and they are confronted by the Lamb, as are we, as the one who has purchased their salvation.
“Because you were slain”—again, verse 93“and with your blood you purchased men for God.” That is the price of our redemption. Once and for all, as we’ve seen each night almost, Christ has paid this price. And when you go forward into chapter 7 and you find the description that is given there, one minute they’re described as 144,000, the next minute they’re described as a company that no one can number; one minute they’re described as the twelve tribes of Israel, the next minute they’re described as people from every tribe and nation and language and tongue and so on—and again, it’s tenuous territory for some—but I think it makes perfect sense. From God’s perspective, the number is absolutely perfect and finished and undeniable. From a human perspective, the number is an unraveling number of vastness, so vast that you can’t count it. From God’s perspective, the people that are redeemed are represented in his tribes. From a human perspective, the people that are redeemed are redeemed from every nation and tribe and people and language and so on.
And what is the main and central aspect of it? Well, you have it right there when somebody asks, “Who are these people?” They’re the ones who’ve “come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” In other words, they are the ones who are cleansed and they are clothed—they are the ones who are cleansed and clothed. And it is on account of that that they’re before the throne of God, and they serve him day and night in his temple, and he who sits on the throne will spread his tent over them, and so on. In the words of one of our old hymns, “All these once were sinners, defiled in his sight, but now arrayed in pure garments in praise they unite. [And] unto him who has loved us and washed us from sin, unto him be the glory forever. Amen.”
They are the ones who have been set free from all that held them in its grip in order that, having been purchased by his blood, they might become men for God—men and women for God. “You have purchased them by your blood”—that’s the price, and the purpose is that we might be for God: not our own, bought with a price, living for him.
And when you think about it, in their day, as they looked around, and they saw some of their friends taken into captivity, as they saw people from their community taken away never to return, and as they tried to make sense of the triumph of Christ and of the victory of his ascension and of the reality of his return, somehow or another they had to make sense of it in light of everything that was going on around them. And if you don’t think that what they lived through was a “tribulation,” I don’t know what a tribulation might look like.
And there they were. And someone must have said, “Well, you know, he purchased us for God—he purchased us for God.” I love ninety-nine percent of that song that we just had sung for us, but only ninety-nine percent; and this is no reference to our singers or to Michael W. Smith, but I can’t sing the end of it, because I don’t believe it. Christ purchased men and women for God. The object in the Atonement was, if you like, “Christ died for God.” It wasn’t our need that compelled him; it was the satisfaction of the Father’s justice. And so that song is a great song ’til it gets to the very end, and it goes to the somewhat poetic line: “and like a rose,” you know, “trampled on the ground, you took the fall and thought of me above all.” No, he didn’t. No, he didn’t. He made atonement for the sins, but his focus was always on the Father. He purchased men for God. We exist for God. Our praise is about God. Our service is about God. “The Lamb—the Lamb is all the glory. The Lamb is all the glory.”
How else do we make sense of missionary biography? How else do we explain the absolute rampant chaos represented in the death of those martyrs in the fifties, with Jim Elliott and Nate Saint and the rest of them? How do I explain the girl with whom I studied, Mary Evans—wonderful Welsh girl—out, graduate, learning the Shona language so that she might teach young boys and girls in Zimbabwe; and how, within a relatively short period of time, her life was swallowed up and snuffed out in a terrorist raid in the Pentecostal school in which she was teaching? And when in Newsweek magazine—and you can find this in your records as well—when in Newsweek magazine they represented it all, they said that in the raid that had taken place, so many children and teachers had been killed, and there was one Welsh missionary, and she was hanging on by a thread. By the time Newsweek was published, Mary [Fisher] had gone to heaven; and when they gathered up all of her possessions and brought them home for her mum and dad, her parents (who, incidentally, did not believe what Mary believed); and they took materials—she was a singer and a guitar player and a lovely girl—and then they took them, and they played the cassette tape, and in the Shona language she was singing with the children, teaching them the song, “To me, to live is Christ and to die is gain, to hold his hand and to walk his narrow way. There is no peace, no thrill like walking in his will. For me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Loved ones, that is pure rhetoric unless Revelation 5 is absolutely true: that he went to the cross in order to purchase us for God. So, if all of our breath were to be squeezed out for God, if all of our life were to be trampled over for God, still it would be time and energy well spent.
Well, if the price is Christ’s sacrificial death, if the purpose is in order that we might not be our own, but be his, notice that the scope is absolutely phenomenal. Who are these people whom he purchased? Well, they’re “from every tribe and language and people and nation.” In other words, they’re men and women from everywhere—men and women from everywhere. You have it again in Revelation 7, don’t you? “[And] I looked and”—verse 9—“[and] I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every … tribe, people, … language, standing before the throne and [in front of] the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice: ‘Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.’” And the privilege that was given to each who was present on this occasion was to become part of a kingdom—5:10—part of “a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and [one day to] reign on the earth”; “they will reign on the earth.”
It’s interesting, they will reign on the earth. I’m so glad they’re going to reign on the earth! I’m so glad there’s going to be a new earth, aren’t you? I mean, frankly, most of the stuff about heaven that I was told as a boy made me distinctly uncomfortable. You too? Even now, I’m not excited about it, I’ll tell you straight-up. I don’t know what alabaster walls look like, and I’ve never played a harp, and the thought of playing one, especially for an interminable period of time, seems absolutely unattractive. Indeed, if somebody said to me, “Would you like to go and get fish and chips in Sidmouth or play the harp in an alabaster hallway?” I’d go for fish and chips in Sidmouth every time. And I understand why it was when the Sunday School teacher asked the boys in the class how many of them wanted to go to heaven, and everybody put their hands up except for one wee boy. And she said to him, “Jimmy, what’s up with you? You don’t want to go to heaven?” He said, “Oh, I want to go to heaven, but I thought you were gettin’ the group to go just now.”
I don’t want to get off on a diversion here, and I don’t want to unsettle many of you; in fact, I want to encourage you. In a new earth, all the things that we have enjoyed in a fallen world will be rectified. Every friendship that is precious to us now will be even more precious to us then. The question of what you’re gonna do with your spouse, or whatever else it is, should probably be subsumed under the absolute assurance that God will make everything that is a blessing and an encouragement and a help to us in this fallen world even better when he makes a new heaven and a new earth. And actually, most of our pictures of heaven, most of our songs about heaven, have more to do with Victorian Christianity and Platonic views of the universe than they have to do with a rigorous, thoughtful consideration of what God is actually planning to do. “For the whole creation groans in travail, waiting for the redemption of the sons of God.” Why? Because he is going to make a new creation. The ultimate purpose of God was actually not Adam and Eve in the Garden; it was Christ in Gethsemane, and it was his people in a new heaven and a new earth[MOU1] . For the cross of Christ was not something that was slotted into time in order to correct a defect in a system that had gone wrong; it was the eternal counsels of God’s will that purposed, in the view of man’s inevitable rebellion, that things would be this way.
So we will sing his praises—I don’t know about harps; I’m not unduly concerned about that, despite my comments. We will worship the Lamb. We will do all of this. But again, even if somebody said to me today, you know, they said, “Well, there’s going to be a terrific time and tremendous lot of singing. We’ll just be singing, singing, singing, singing.” I don’t think so; I honestly don’t think so. Frankly, I hope not, ’cause I get tired singing. I really do. I mean, after a few songs I’m done for the night. And I don’t think eternity just make that all different. No, there’ll be parks, there’ll be fishing, there’ll be sunsets. We say, “No, there’s no sun.” Bring me back again, and we’ll do a complete series on this, alright? ’Cause I gotta stop. Somebody says from the back, “Given your last five minutes, you’ll never be back again,” but that’s okay. That’s entirely alright.
Let me end in this way: notice the ever-expanding circle of praise that is described here; and remember, in the book of Revelation, again—that’s why I said, and I wasn’t being facetious, it’s like a comic book. Do you remember those books you used to get, at least we did when I was … the small—I don’t think they still have them; like, the war books? They were comics, with the drawings in them. And you could read the dialogue if you want to, but if you just looked at it, you said, “I get the point here.” And then you look at the next page, you pretty well follow along, even if you couldn’t read. In other words, if you stood far enough back from it and just looked at the pictures, you’d say, “I think I get the plot here.” In the same way, if you take the book of Revelation and stand far enough back from it, I think you’ll get the plot. If you get your nose too far into it and start fiddling around, there’s no saying what you’ll get. You might get a rash, for all I know.
And the story is just essentially this: Jesus wins. Jesus wins! See? I mean, that’s really what it is. That’s what he’s saying; because the people are saying, “We’re finished. Look at us! We’re getting smaller by the day, rather than bigger. Jesus was here, but he’s gone. He said he would come back, but there’s no sign of him. Meanwhile, the Roman authorities are getting worse by the minute, and they want us to keep saying to one another when we meet each other in the street, ‘Caesar is lord.’ But we can’t say Caesar is lord, because he’s not. We must say Jesus is Lord. And every time we say Jesus is Lord, they haul one or two of us away and give us a royal hiding.” “Well, don’t worry about it. We’ve got a great book for you here. It’s all about Israel in 1948 and 1991 and 2009 and 1946 and everything else. You’ll really love it, you know. It’s gonna really help you.” How? No, don’t be silly.
He writes to these beleaguered individuals—of course, the book has a forward thrust, it’s not irrelevant to our age. But isn’t it interesting that in every generation, especially the closer we get to dying, everybody that I’ve ever met says, “This is the end of the world. It’s coming, Jesus is coming back tonight.” Because you hope so, ’cause you don’t want to go in a coffin, and neither do I. And everybody does it. When I was eighteen, going to the prophetic meetings with Frederick Tapford and Sunbury’s Road Mission, I never drove home so fast in all my life, because Tapford did this talk called “Two Minutes to Midnight,” and I was looking at my watch, I’m saying, “I’ve gotta get home, ’cause I gotta get some of my mother’s cooking, because I’ve only got an hour and fifty; I want my supper, at least, before this whole thing goes, before this trumpet blows.” But it never happened. Then as I went back on the Saturday night, it was still two minutes to midnight on the Saturday night. And then The Late, Great Planet Earth, that came bouncing out, and Hal Lindsey had it all sorted out for us: the locusts were Soviet helicopters, and they were coming in from wherever it was. Man, did I eat that up and enjoy that and love that and couldn’t wait for it all. Well, goodness gracious, if fifty years or forty-five years have elapsed, and what happened to all of that? That was rubbish! I mean, if he’d been in the Old Testament, someone would have hit him over the head with a brick, ’cause he would have been a false prophet.
No, this is the thing, you see: you look and you say, “Now what do we have here?” We have the Lamb, slain from the foundation of the world. He is the one who steps forward, both as Lion, as Lamb. He is the one who has the keys that are able to unlock the scroll of destiny. He doesn’t tell us everything. The language that is used is multifarious; it’s eschatological, it’s metaphorical, and so on. It’s very hard to deal with, and if you stand far enough back from it, you’ll get the picture, and you will be invited to join in the ever‑expanding circle of praise. Verse 8 of chapter 5: “And when he had taken [the scroll], the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each [of them] had a harp … they were holding golden bowls full of incense”—good for them—“which are the prayers of the saints.” Alright? That’s the first circle. Go to verse 11: “[And] then I looked and [I] heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. [And] they encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. [And] in a loud voice they sang.” That’s the second concentric circle going out the way. Then verse 13: “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!’ [And] the four living creatures said, ‘Amen,’ and the elders fell down and [they] worshiped.”
You see what’s happening? He’s giving them this picture of absolute, total triumph. Eventually—basically, what you have here is Philippians 2: one day at the name of Jesus—not just the four elders and the twenty-four and the whatever—one day “at the name of Jesus, every knee [will] bow … and every tongue [will] confess”  that he is the Lamb, slain from the foundation of the world, by whose blood our sins are cleansed, with whose righteousness we are clothed, and in whose company we will live for all of eternity—whatever it’s going to be like. And remember what I told you earlier: you don’t have to pay one bit of attention to all my silly stuff. You are sensible people. Read the Bible for yourselves, and remember: the main things are the plain things, and the plain things are the main things.
Samuel Rutherford, and we stop. Rutherford—Scottish divine; some of you have read his letters and his memoirs. Margaret Cousins, who was the wife of one of his minister friends, took some of his materials and wrote a very long poem. And out of that very long poem, somebody chose about six stanzas and wrote a hymn, and you know what it was. It begins: “The sands of time are sinking”—remember? And “the dawn of heaven breaks.” And it is wonderful in its picturesque language, and it concludes in this way:
The bride eyes not her garment,
But her dear bridegroom’s face.
I will not gaze on glory,
But on the king of grace.
Not on the crown he giveth,
But on his nail‑pierced hand.
For the Lamb is all the glory
In Emanuel’s land.
And whatever that will mean, and however that will look, because God has promised to bring to completion the good work that he has already begun in the lives of his children,  if I don’t see you before, I will try and find you, and perhaps we can either go fishing, or maybe just play the harp for a little while in the afternoon.
 Revelation 5:1–14 (NIV 1984).
 Graeme Goldsworthy, The Gospel in Revelation (Exeter: Paternoster Press, 1984), 79–80. Paraphrased.
 Revelation 1:9 (paraphrased).
 Acts 2 (paraphrased).
 2 Peter 3:3–5 (paraphrased).
 Leon Morris, The Book of Revelation: An Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987), 22.
 Paul Simon, “Flowers Never Bend with the Rainfall,” The Paul Simon Songbook (1965).
 Keith and Kristyn Getty, “There is a Higher Throne” (2003). Paraphrased.
 Revelation 4:2 (NIV 1984).
 Revelation 5:5 (paraphrased).
 Acts 2:24 (paraphrased).
 Revelation 5:6 (paraphrased).
 Revelation 5:6 (ASV).
 Matthew Bridges, “Crown Him with Many Crowns” (1851).
 Revelation 5:6 (paraphrased).
 Revelation 7:13-14 (NIV 1984).
 Revelation 7:15 (NIV 1984)
 A. T. Pierson, “With Harps and Viols” (1874).
 Paul Baloche and Lenny LeBlanc, “Above All” (1999).
 Samuel Rutherford, “The Sands of Time are Sinking” (1857). Paraphrased.
 Peter Younghusband, “Massacre in Rhodesia,” Newsweek, 3 July 1978, p. 43.
 J. White, “For Me, to Live Is Christ” (1969). Paraphrased.
 Romans 8:22–24 (paraphrased).
 Hal Lindsey, The Late, Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1970).
 Philippians 2:10 (NIV 1984).
 Samuel Rutherford, “The Sands of Time are Sinking” (1857). Paraphrased.
 Philippians 1:6 (paraphrased).
[MOU1]The ultimate purpose of God … was Christ in Gethsemane and it was his people in a new heaven and a new earth.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.