I Know Who Holds the Future

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Revelation 5:1-10

If you are a Christian, you can say this with me: I don’t know what the future may hold, but I know something better. I know who holds the future!

Think with me for just a moment about the difference between fantasy and reality. You know what a fantasy is – it’s a product of the imagination. It might be an entertaining and uplifting fantasy, like a fairy tale or children’s story or science fiction film. Or it could be a delusional fantasy, like the high school girl who dreams about a movie star falling in love with her. But whatever the fantasy, it has this elemental characteristic: it isn’t true. It isn’t real.

The deeper question, though, is this: what is real? Is reality only what we can see and touch? Is it found only in things that we can buy and sell? Or is true reality rather to be found in the intangibles; faith, hope and love, for instance? Is reality limited to our bodies that we use for pleasure, or is it located in the souls that we cannot see? The Bible says that the things that are seen are passing away, but the unseen things are eternal. So which are more real? Could it be that most of what we think of as reality is actually part of a fantasy, namely, the fantasy that this life is all there is and that this world is all that matters? And could it be that what many think is sheer fantasy – the idea of a heaven where God is ruling and where the redeemed live and reign with him in glory – that this is actually reality?

In the closing decades of the twentieth century one of the most eloquent voices bearing witness to Christian hope was that of the British journalist Malcolm Muggeridge. Muggeridge was harshly critical of the decadence of modern western culture, and especially of the media. He spoke as an insider, having spent a lifetime as one of the best known print and television commentators in Great Britain. Muggeridge contrasted the fantasies of modern life with the solid reality of biblical truth.

The first Christians lived in a society as depraved and dissolute as ours. Their games, like our television, specialized in spectacles of violence and eroticism. Paul exhorted them . . . . to concern themselves with the things that are unseen, for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal. It was in the breakdown of Rome that Christendom was born. Now in the breakdown of Christendom there are the same possibilities to [reject] the fantasy of a disintegrating world and seek the reality of what is not seen and eternal, the reality of Christ.

(Malcolm Muggeridge, The End of Christendom)

Muggeridge suggests the idea to me that we consider two very different sets of images. On the one hand are all the scenes served up to us each night by our television sets. The pictures, people and stories seem real, but they are, in fact, a fantasy, a distortion of reality; “spectacles of violence and eroticism,” in Muggeridge’s words. On the other hand there are the visions contained in the last book of the Bible, the book we call Revelation. The apostle John’s apocalyptic visions, by contrast to modern media, seem fantastic, but they are describing true reality far more accurately than anything we see or hear in the world around us.

GOD AT THE CENTER

Revelation is a complex book, and I freely acknowledge that it contains much that is difficult to interpret, but the central message, I think, is clear and understandable. This message is conveyed in a series of pictures or visions which God’s Spirit revealed to John in the closing years of the first century when John was living in exile on the island of Patmos off the southern coast of Turkey. The message is conveyed by means of a vision that John describes in Revelation chapters 4 and 5.

John begins by simply trying to describe what he saw – no easy task! What does heaven look like? Well, John was given a glimpse through heaven’s open door (4:1), and he attempted to put into human words what it looked like inside. The first thing John mentions is a throne: “there before me was a throne in heaven with someone sitting on it” (4:2). Everyone and everything else in John’s vision is described in relation to this throne:

  • Encircling the throne was an emerald rainbow. (4:3)
  • Surrounding the throne were twenty-four elders on thrones of their own. (4:4)
  • From the throne came lightning and thunder. (4:5)
  • Before the throne, seven lamps are blazing. (4:5)
  • In front of the throne stretched a sea of glass, as clear as crystal. (4:6)
  • Around the throne were four living creatures. (4:7)
  • In the hand of him who sat on the throne there was a scroll. (5:1)
  • In the center of the throne stood a Lamb that had been slain. (5:6)
  • Finally, encircling the throne and all its attendants hovered countless thousands of angels, singing continually in praise of the Lamb: “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power
    and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and blessing.” (5:11)

ULTIMATE REALITY

Everything about this heavenly scene is awe-inspiring. But what does it all mean? What are we supposed to think about this? What can we take away from this glimpse of heaven that John offers? Clearly, it’s meant to be spectacular and breathtaking and all that, but does it make any difference to us, now, in the twenty-first century? After all, we’re used to viewing special effects from Industrial Light and Magic, the original “Star Wars” company. Are we going to get excited about a scene from an ancient book that’s really just words on paper?

I can’t speak for you, but I am! I find this scene of God’s throne and all the hosts of heaven incredibly exciting and profoundly meaningful. I believe that what John offers us here is a description, in the form of a vision, of ultimate reality. (Notice I said a vision, not a photograph. If you tried to draw this scene, for example, with the throne of God and all its surrounding attendants, you would soon run into problems. The vision of God’s throne is intended to stir our imagination; it isn’t something we can literally map out.) So what does John’s vision of heaven teach us then about ultimate reality?

It teaches us first that the most ultimately real thing of all is God. The world is basically man-centered; heaven is God-centered. Everyone and everything is focused upon him. At the very heart of all reality is the Triune God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. But there is also a mystery surrounding God. Though we can know him, we can never fully comprehend him. Notice that John never quite describes what God looks like. He specifically mentions all the beings around and above and before the throne, but when he comes to talk about the One sitting upon the throne, John is vague. “And the one who sat there,” he wrote, “had the appearance of jasper and carnelian”(v. 3). What John sees when he tries to look straight at the figure on the throne is simply light, the colorful, dazzling brilliance of precious stones.

PRESENT REALITY

But if John’s vision of God upon the throne of heaven is a reminder of ultimate reality, we should also remember that this describes present reality too. It isn’t just a picture of how things will be someday, in the far-off future, when God finally manages to get things under control. As Christians, we believe that God is in control right now. The Greek name for the book of Revelation is the Apocalypse, meaning “the unveiling.” I believe that the main purpose of the book is not so much to reveal the future or chart the events of the end times – at least not in specific detail. Rather, Revelation is intended to unveil the truth about God’s rule right here and right now.

When I read the book of Revelation, I am reminded of a story from the Old Testament. The prophet Elisha and his servant were trapped in an Israelite city, surrounded by the enemy. When his servant panicked, Elisha prayed, “O Lord, open his eyes,” and suddenly he saw that the hills all around the city were filled with an army of angels with horses and chariots of fire (2 Kings 6:17). This is what the book of Revelation does for us. It helps us to see behind the scenes to what is really going on in the world. It pulls back the heavenly curtain in order to show us that, whatever the visible appearances of things on earth may suggest, God really is there always on the throne. Revelation, in other words, with its fantastic visions, helps to open our eyes to see the invisible reality of God.

Here’s John again:

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.

Revelation 5:1-8

The key to this scene is the scroll. It rests in the hand of God, covered with writing on both sides. The scroll represents the full story of human history and destiny – all the secrets of the world and of each human life, past, present and future. The seven seals lining the edge of the scroll and keeping it closed to human investigation remind us that we can neither fully know nor understand the secret purposes of God. We just don’t know what the meaning of all the painful things that befall us may be, but we do believe there is a meaning, and that it is known to God. The scroll is in his hands.

And someday, we believe, that scroll will be opened. When John sees it, he begins to weep because no one is able to break the seals and unroll the scroll. But John’s tears are stopped by the announcement that the Lion of Judah is worthy, not only to receive the scroll but to open it, thus revealing all God’s plans and bringing them to completion. But when John turns to look, behold, another mystery. What he sees is not a powerful lion but a Lamb, slain as a sacrifice. The fulfillment of history – including, we may believe, the answers to our own personal questions – is entrusted to him.

This truth calls forth the worship of all the hosts of heaven. They sing “a new song” to the Lamb, that is, to the Lord Jesus Christ:

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.

(vv. 9-10)

HE HOLDS THE FUTURE

I find this whole vision, this entire heavenly scene, to be of boundless comfort. It tells me that at the very heart of reality is God, and at the very heart of God is the Lord Jesus Christ, the one who suffered and died for me. For all eternity the heavenly worship will be centered not just on the power and majesty and infinite glory of the eternal omnipotent King, but on the sacrificed one, the Lamb of God, slain for the sins of the world. He has purchased people with his shed blood, people from every nation and language and tribe, and this magnificent multi-racial, multi-lingual, multi-national body will reign with Christ and worship and serve the Lord in the new creation forever and ever.

Meanwhile, he holds the scroll. There’s an old saying Christians are sometimes fond of using: “I don’t know what the future holds, but I know who holds the future.” That could very well be the caption for John’s vision of ultimate reality.

It isn’t fantasy; it’s as real as it gets!