Suffering and Triumph
A sermon on Revelation 11 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 6/5/2005
What is your reaction when you read of Christian martyrs - those who believe in Jesus, and die because of it? More generally, what is your reaction when you read of Christians who are suffering because of their faith?
There have been many martyrs over the centuries since Jesus died Himself, beginning with Christians killed by the Roman Empire, continuing through those killed during the Reformation, on through today; indeed, more Christians were killed for their faith in the 20th century than in any previous century.
What is your reaction to these deaths? Are you disturbed? Are you troubled? Do you wonder, “Where is God?” Do you think, “Boy, if that’s how God takes care of His people, I’m not going any place I might be martyred!”
In our journey through Revelation, we have reached a chapter that talks specifically about the suffering of God’s people.
In chapter 11, through a series of images God shows the Apostle John the contrast between two types of people: Those who belong to Him, and those who belong to His enemies. But those who belong to Him do not go from triumph to triumph. Instead, they are trampled upon, they are conquered. At one point, the evil forces rejoice, for they seem to have triumphed.
Yet this chapter also contains one of the greatest prophecies of God’s triumph in all of Scripture. Indeed, Handel used this text as the central theme of the Hallelujah Chorus:
The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign forever and ever. Revelation 11:15
Isn’t this strange? Isn’t this weird? To juxtapose, to put right next to each other, the suffering of God’s people and the triumph of God?
No. For God’s triumph is a triumph through the suffering of His people.
How we need to hear this lesson today!
God triumphs through – not in spite of – the suffering of His people.
Let’s see how this chapter shows us this truth, and then draw implications for our life today.
For those of you who are new: We have been studying the book of Revelation since February. In the introductory sermon, we highlighted three principles of interpretation:
First, the correct interpretation of this book must provide blessings for all believers from the time of its writing (about 95AD), until Jesus comes again. Remember, Revelation begins and ends with a promise of blessing to those who read, hear, and keep its prophecies (Revelation 1:3 and 22:7). These promises bookend all else in the book. Thus, Revelation cannot be relevant only to those living in the Roman Empire; it cannot be relevant only to those living in the last few years before Jesus’ return. There must be lessons here for us today, and for all Christians in all times to heed and keep.
Second, Revelation is not chronological. Recall that we saw that some books of the Bible are chronological; they relate events in the order in which they happen. Acts is one example. But other books, such as Jeremiah, are not. We showed in that first sermon that while John’s visions seem to be related chronologically – that is, he reports the visions in the order that he sees them – the fulfillment of those visions cannot follow the same order.
Third, Revelation is a symbolic book. Recall that we saw this right in the first verse of the book. The verb translated “made it known” in the ESV for Revelation 1:1 is more literally “signified”. God signifies or pictures the message He gives to John. As one commentator puts it, Revelation is a “sacrament of the imagination, to quicken the pulse and set the soul aflame over the gospel which all too often we take for granted.”
So as we come to chapter 11, the question is: How will we understand the pictures here in a way that gives us blessing through our hearing and keeping the message?
Those are general principles to keep in mind throughout Revelation. Recall also where we are in the book. Chapters 8 and 9 relate how seven angels have trumpets of judgment; they sound them one by one. The first four angels sounded their trumpets in Chapter 8; in each case, disaster strikes the earth. Then, in Chapter 9, evil forces attack God’s enemies on earth directly.
There is one last trumpet to sound, the seventh. But Chapter 10 and the first half of 11 are an interlude between the 6th and 7th trumpets. Chapter 10, which we looked at last week, focuses on the little scroll, a book representing God’s written word, the Bible. That chapter emphasizes that:
Chapter 11 completes the interlude, then relates the sounding of the seventh trumpet, and God’s ultimate triumph.
We’ll look at this chapter under three headings:
Chapter 11 highlights two types of people. Building on the central theme of the previous chapter, the response to God’s Word is what divides one group from the other. God’s people are faithful to His Word. God’s enemies are those who reject His Word, His witness.
Many different images are used to communicate this central idea. The chapter begins with John being told, “Go and measure the temple of God.” But what is the temple of God? Remember, Revelation is a symbolic book. Recall Revelation 3:12, in the letter from Jesus to the church in Philadelphia:
The one who conquers, I will make him a pillar in the temple of my God. Never shall he go out of it, and I will write on him the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name.
In this verse, the temple is a picture of God’s people, those people who are blessed with His presence in their midst. This is a common biblical image. For example, consider 1 Corinthians 3:16-17:
Do you not know that you are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in you? 17 If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. For God's temple is holy, and you are that temple.
To be the temple of God is to have God’s Spirit in you. Thus, the temple is one picture of God’s people.
A second picture of God’s people also picks up from an image in Revelation 3:12. That verse says that “the name of city of my God, the new Jerusalem” is written on His people. We’ll see the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven in chapter 21. That is an image of God dwelling with His people for all eternity.
But for now, consider the use of the word “city.” This word is used 27 times in Revelation, including twice in this chapter: verse 2 refers to the “holy city” while verse 8 refers to the “great city.” Speaking of God’s two witnesses, verse 8 tells us that:
their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city that symbolically is called Sodom and Egypt, where their Lord was crucified.
Jesus was crucified in Jerusalem. But this “great city” is not the same as the new Jerusalem! Indeed, this “great city” is like Sodom, like Egypt, like those that reject God’s Word and must be overthrown. Indeed, the term “great city” is used seven other times in Revelation, and each time clearly refers to God’s enemies.
So we have a contrast here between the “holy city” of verse 2 – the present, earthly manifestation of that eternal city, the new Jerusalem, the temple – and the “great city” of verse 8 – God’s enemies, who are also “the nations” who trample the holy city in verse 2.
Thus, two types of people: God’s people and God’s enemies.
Now consider the two witnesses who figure prominently in this chapter. Remember chapter 10: God’s people are those who are faithful to His Word. These two witnesses are indeed faithful. But what do they picture? In verse 4, these witnesses are called “lampstands”. In chapters 1 and 2, lampstands are used as pictures of the church – that is, God’s people. we are told explicitly in Revelation 1:20, “the seven lampstands are the seven churches.” The use of this term for the two witnesses is at least a strong hint that these too are pictures of God’s people.
Once again, the chapter draws a contrast between a picture of God’s people and a picture of God’s enemies. The “great city”, the nations, “those who dwell on the earth” (verse 10) oppose the two witnesses.
So all of these images project pictures of two types of people. Note that no one is in between. All humanity is divided into two camps: God’s temple, the holy city, God’s witnesses on the one hand; and the nations, those who trample God’s temple, the great city, those who dwell on the earth on the other hand.
What happens to part of temple? What happens to the holy city? What happens to the witnesses?
As we see in verse 2, part of the temple complex is not measured, is not kept from harm. This part is “given over to the nations.” As for the holy city, it is “trampled” by the nations for 42 months. Verse 7 tells us that the two witnesses, despite their great power, and warred against and then killed by the beast (we’ll learn more about him in the next few chapters). God’s enemies then proceed to expose the bodies of the two witnesses, and rejoice, celebrating their victory.
Thus, God gives John three pictures of terrible suffering of His people.
Question: Is this suffering a tragedy?
It certainly looks like it. Evil seems to triumph. The witness to God’s truth is ended.
But John lets us know even here that God is in control. Look at the beginning of verse 7. When are the witnesses killed? Not until “they have finished their testimony.”
This is absolutely vital to see. God’s enemies are always fighting against the two witnesses. They are always trying to destroy them. Yet the two witnesses are invincible. They cannot be destroyed, they cannot be overcome until their witness to God’s truth and majesty and might and power is complete. Thus, God is in control – even of the suffering of His people.
And what does He do with that suffering? He displays His triumph.
This chapter portrays God’s triumph in two ways: God vindicates His people, and He vindicates His Name. We’ll consider those in turn.
First, the vindication of His people. Look at verse 11. The witnesses are lying dead. They have been defeated. Their bodies are mocked. Their defeat is the cause of rejoicing for their enemies. But then:
a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood up on their feet and great fear fell on those who saw them.
God then calls them to Himself; like the valley of dry bones in Ezekiel 37, they come to life; they then ascend while their enemies watch. God’s people are seemingly defeated, rejected, and overcome. But God shows that He loves them. He shows that they are His people. He vindicates His people.
Once again, Revelation 11 echoes the letter to the church in Philadelphia in chapter 3. Consider 3:8-9:
I know that you have but little power, and yet you have kept my word and have not denied my name. 9 Behold, I will make those of the synagogue of Satan who say that they are Jews and are not, but lie- behold, I will make them come and bow down before your feet and they will learn that I have loved you.
In chapter 3 and chapter 11, God shows before the faces of His enemies that He has loved His people. God vindicates His people.
But God does not only vindicate His people. He also vindicates His Name.
When God’s enemies are rejoicing over the bodies of the witnesses, they think the beast has overcome God’s people. But more importantly, they think the beast has overcome God Himself.
But God shows quickly how wrong they are. In verse 13 part of the “great city” is destroyed; the seventh angel blows His trumpet and God finally triumphs completely:
The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever. Revelation 11:15
God’s enemies at long last are overthrown. God Himself will now reign forever and ever. There is no more opposition. God’s obliterates His opponents.
God has always been in control behind the scenes (remember the beginning of verse 7). But that control was subtle; sometimes it looked as if evil triumphed. Now, at long last, at the sounding of the seventh trumpet, no one can deny that He is in control. God vindicates His Name.
Furthermore, notice how the elders refer to God in verse 17: “who is and who was”. Do you remember a similar phrase used of God in chapter 1? Both 1:4 and 1:8 refer to Him as He “who is and who was and who is to come.” But now, at the sounding of the seventh trumpet, no longer is He the One who “is to come”. He has come! He has. “taken [His] great power and [have] begun to reign”. Hallelujah!
Finally, look at verse 18. God rewards all His servants, both small and great. Not one of God’s people is insignificant. Every one is important, so He rewards them all. And God “destroys the destroyers of the earth.” He gives His enemies just retribution. They have destroyed His creation; He destroys them. As Paul says,
If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him. 1 Corinthians 3:17
Thus, this chapter concerns triumph and suffering. God’s people glorify Him by showing faith in His power, faith in His future grace when no there is no earthly reason to have such faith. They display by their faith that He is worth more than all the world has to offer. As Paul says,
It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be honored in my body, whether by life or by death. 21 For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. Philippians 1:20-21
God’s people show that dying is gain, and that living is Christ. Thus, God’s people glorify Him, especially in their suffering and dying.
God also glorifies Himself directly by proving – both to His people and to His enemies – that the faith of His people is well-grounded. He will reward His servants. He will destroy the destroyers. He will overcome all opposition. And He will reign forever and ever.
What is message of this chapter for us today? What lessons must we heed to get the promised blessing? Let me bring out four exhortations, two negative and two positive.
1) Don’t assess a church’s success or failure based on external signs.
Think: What were the external signs of success when the two witnesses were lying dead? What were the external signs of success when the outer court of the temple was trampled?
We’ve seen many similar cases over the centuries of Christian history. For example, in the early 1950’s, the church in China appeared to be dead. All missionaries had been expelled. Known leaders of the Chinese church were executed, imprisoned, or persecuted.
But the Chinese church was not dead! God used that very suffering and persecution to strengthen and purify His church in order to bring greater glory to Himself. So thirty years later, when at long last we in the West were able to learn what was going on in China, we found that that church had multiplied much more rapidly between 1950 and 1980 than in the previous thirty years.
This lesson holds whether you look at an individual church or the church as a whole in a country. When all seems to be going wrong, when the church seems about to die, don’t despair. Don’t panic. God is in control, and He will use setbacks and difficulties for His own good purposes to magnify His Name.
On the other hand, don’t think a church is successful because of external signs. Instead, in all circumstances, stick to the task: The faithful proclamation of God’s Word, through example and through speaking. Then trust our all-wise, all-powerful God to work all things to His glory through His people - especially through the suffering of His people.
2) Don’t look ultimately to a political or social victory.
When will the kingdom of the world become the kingdom of our God? Not until the seventh trumpet sounds. Not until God’s perfect timing. Not until God chooses to end history as we know it, and establish His kingdom. As Peter says, we are in exile, we are strangers and foreigners here. Political and social work may have an impact for a time. But the “great city” will appear to triumph over the “holy city.” All our political and social work will appear to have been for naught.
Now, hear me: I am not saying, “Don’t work for social or political change. Don’t seek to ameliorate poverty or assist orphans or abolish racism or end abortion.” By all means work for such change. The second greatest commandment is “love your neighbor as you love yourself”; this commandment surely implies that a William Wilberforce should work to outlaw the slave trade, and that we today should work to right wrongs. James 1:27 surely implies that we should work to help the millions of AIDS orphans around the world.
Thus, we are to work for political and social good, even while we do not place our hope in such work.
Do you remember Jeremiah’s exhortation to the Jewish exiles in Babylon? Many Judeans had been taken into exile by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon. This same king destroyed Jerusalem, demolishing the temple. Yet Jeremiah writes:
But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare. Jeremiah 29:7
The Jews were to work towards the welfare of Babylon – but they had no hope of making the Babylonian empire into the kingdom of God! God promised that He would return them to the their own land. And, ultimately, God promised them His Messiah.
Just so with us. We are to show the world God’s love and God’s righteousness. But we are to place our hope not in that work, but in God’s coming kingdom; we are to place our hope not in political or social transformation but in the triumph of God. And God’s ultimate triumph will come through His suffering church – not from a church that looks to the eyes of the world as if it were triumphant.
Now to the positive exhortations. We’ve seen these before in Revelation:
3) Take risks!
Do you think you might suffer? Good! God triumphs through suffering! Do not seek suffering, but do not fear suffering. Remember, the witnesses were invulnerable until they completed their testimony. So too are you. God uses the suffering of the witnesses to maximize His glory; He will do the same in your life. So do not fear! God exercises meticulous, sovereign control over all his enemies. As Psalm 1:6 says, “The Lord watches over the way of the righteous.”
So whether you fear the mockery of your officemates should you witness or the possible physical danger of serving as a missionary to a Moslem people group, know this: God is in control. No suffering is pointless. To live is Christ. To die is gain.
4) There are only two types of people. Which are you?
Ultimately you are one or the other. We tend to think of shades in between. But this is not so. There is a sharp dividing line. God will reward every one of His people, no matter how small his or her work, no matter how seemingly insignificant he or she is. All God’s people will rejoice with Him for all eternity.
The other group will bear the full weight of God’s wrath, as He destroys the destroyers of the earth.
Which are you? Which type of person are you?
There is only one way to belong to God. And this way is
The only way to belong to God is to throw yourself on His mercy by the blood of Jesus. Will you do that, even now?
This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 6/5/05. Greg Beale’s The Book of Revelation (Eerdmans, 1999) was helpful. The quotation referring to Revelation as a “sacrament of the imagination” is from Michael Wilcock, The Message of Revelation (Intervarsity, 1975).
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