True and False Greatness, True and False Joy

A sermon on Revelation 18:9-19:10 by Coty Pinckney, Desiring God Community Church, Charlotte, NC, 7/31/2005

What makes something great?

I grew up watching TV commercials of Tony the Tiger saying, “Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes are grrrrreat!” Presumably, Tony meant they tasted good.

Today, we make great use of the word “great.”

But what makes something truly great?

Our text today uses the word “great” 11 times. Figuring out what this word means is key to understanding the text. Indeed, the main point of this text is to help us to discern true greatness, and to help us not to be impressed with pseudo-greatness, false greatness.

Let’s jump right away to the key verses: Remember what we saw last time: Babylon is a picture of the appeal of worldly comforts gained through false religion, ideology, or economic success.

Then a mighty angel took up a stone like a great millstone and threw it into the sea, saying, "So will Babylon the great city be thrown down with violence, and will be found no more; . . . [then the angel describes what will no longer happen in Babylon; the middle of verse 23 picks up the sentence again] FOR or BECAUSE  your merchants were the great ones of the earth. Revelation 18:21-23

You get that? The angel is explaining why Babylon the great city will be thrown down. He says the reason is that her merchants were the great ones of the earth. Isn’t that clear? Clear as mud. Does God get some sort of joy from knocking down great people? Is God against greatness?

Keep reading:

because your merchants were the great ones of the earth, and all nations were deceived by your sorcery. 24 And in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slain on earth." Revelation 18:23-24

Babylon will be thrown down because all nations were deceived by her sorcery. Babylon will be thrown down because she killed God’s people. Earlier, Babylon was said to have made “all nations drink the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality." (14:8). She deceives. She makes nations drunk, so they do not see true reality. They do not see true greatness.

So what does this have to do with her merchants being the great ones of the earth? This is part of her deceit. Her merchants were not great. They looked great because they were rich. They looked great because they were allied with the “great” prostitute - who has only the appearance of greatness and power and beauty herself.

So I think a proper way to translate this idea into English would be to put quotation marks around the word “great:” Babylon is thrown down because her merchants were the “great” ones of the earth. They thought they were great. They convinced others they were great. But they were headed to God’s trash heap while the saints and prophets they killed were becoming the bride of Christ.

This is the theme, my friends. True and False Greatness. True and False Joy.

We’ll look at the text under these headings:

The End of False Joy and False Greatness

True Greatness

True Joy

The End of False Joy and False Greatness

In 18:4-8, the conclusion of last week’s text, a voice from heaven tells God’s people to come out of Babylon, saying God has remembered her iniquities and will judge her. Verses 7 and 8 describes Babylon:

As she glorified herself and lived in luxury, so give her a like measure of torment and mourning, since in her heart she says, 'I sit as a queen, I am no widow, and mourning I shall never see.' 8 For this reason her plagues will come in a single day, death and mourning and famine, and she will be burned up with fire; for mighty is the Lord God who has judged her.

She thinks she is great. She thinks she has peace. She thinks she is in control. But she is not. Note the speed of her judgment. “A single day”. In the remainder of the chapter this is shortened to “a single hour” and repeated three times (verses 10, 17, and 19). She thinks she is secure, but falls suddenly.

Verses 9-19 describe the reactions to her judgment of those who have been associated with her:

This series of laments echoes Ezekiel 27, a prophecy of judgment on the city of Tyre, which was a center of commerce on the Mediteranean in the ancient world.

All three types of people weep and mourn or wail (verses 9, 15, and 19). They fear they themselves will be cast down too. So they all are said to stand far off; the first two “in fear of her torment” - that is, fearing that they too will suffer her torment, knowing that if this quick judgment can happen to her, it certainly can happen to them.

These three types of people all had a false joy. All had a false greatness. Consider what they had:

These all are wealthy. Powerful. Satisfied. Happy. They all think they are great. But in every case, their joy is a false joy. In every case, their sense of greatness is false.

Verses 21-24, which we looked at above, detail the fall. Note the repeating phrase, “no more” found in verses 21, 22 (3 times), and 23 (2 times). Their sense of joy is no more. All that false joy disappears. Their sense of greatness is no more. All that false greatness disappears.

Thus these verses are a fulfillment of Psalm 46:6:

The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.

And also 2 Peter 3:10 

the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.

Remember 18:4 from last week: The voice from heaven says, “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues.“ This is not an empty threat. Recall chapters 2 and 3, the letters from Jesus to the seven churches. There Jesus says that large parts of His church are in danger of sharing in those plagues because of their delight in worldly comforts. This is most obvious in the letter to Laodicea, This church sounds dangerously close to Babylon the Prostitute:

I am about to spit you out of my mouth.  17 For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked.  18 I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see.  19 Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Revelation 3:16-19 

How strong are the appeals of worldly comforts to you? How attractive to you are ta lipara kai ta lampra, the glitter and glitz of the world? Are you pursuing false joy? Are you pursuing false greatness? How much energy are you investing in joys and accomplishments that will burn up? How much energy are you investing in real joy?

True Greatness

Chapter 19:1-4 stand in stark contrast. The kings, merchants, and shipmasters wail and lament when they see the judgment of the great prostitute; the multitude in heaven rejoices at the same sight. Why?

After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying out, "Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, 2 for his judgments are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants." 3 Once more they cried out, "Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up forever and ever." 4 And the twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God who was seated on the throne, saying, "Amen. Hallelujah!"

Do you see the point? The prostitute thought she was great, and that she was secure, and that she would never mourn. The merchants and kings thought they were great: they were rich, they had it made. They all thought God was under their control. But God shatters their illusion. Salvation and glory and power belong to Him!

Note the evidence the multitude cites to show that salvation and glory and power belong to God: God has judged the great prostitute; He has avenged on her the blood of His servants. So once again, God shows that He answers the prayers offered in 6:10 by His witnesses. Remember, in that verse the souls under altar ask God,

O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?

He promises He will after a little while. And in chapter 18, He does. No one resists His great power. So the multitude cries out,

"Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up forever and ever." Revelation 19:3

Jump ahead to verse 10: This message gives John such joy that he does something foolish:

Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but he said to me, "You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your brothers who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God." For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.

John is so overwhelmed by the message that he is tempted to worship the messenger. But the angel rebukes him. “Don’t worship me! I am not great! I, like you, am a witness to Jesus! Only God is great! Worship Him!”

My friends, no one is great but God.

Are you looking to anything other than God for protection? For honor? He is the great one. Look to Him.

True Joy

Before the fall of Babylon, the kings, merchants, and shipmasters think they have real joy. They have glitter and glitz. They have sex. They have wealth. They have respect. But they lose it all in a moment. And instead of eternal joy, Babylon suffers eternal punishment. She has a brief, ephemeral joy, but then the smoke from her goes up forever and ever.

Who has true joy? Go back to 18:20:

Rejoice over her, O heaven, and you saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her!

In passing, take note: there are no quotation marks in the Greek text, so the translators have to figure out when one speaker stops and the narrator or another speaker begins. The way the ESV and NIV translators place quotation marks implies that verse 20 is spoken by the shipmasters. That makes no sense, in my opinion. The New American Standard gets the quotation marks right, having this verse spoken by the same voice from heaven that speaks in verses 4-8.

The voice tells all God’s people to rejoice, to be glad. For how long? As long as her smoke goes up – that is, forever! Our rejoicing in God’s victory, his vindication of his people, is forever and ever.

Through this judgment, God shows that:

They were the ones who saw the true nature of reality: God in control!

This is true joy!

Verses 5-10 of this chapter elaborate on this idea: Verse 5 calls on all God’s servants to praise Him – both the “small and great”. In contrast, only those who think they are great lament the prostitute in chapter 18. Those who mourn her don’t include any who are “small.” But here some of God’s servants are said to be small, to appear insignificant. Yet God makes them great. As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 1:26-29: 

Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth.  27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong;  28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are,  29 so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.

You may be great in the eyes of the world. You may be nothing. It doesn’t matter ultimately. What matters is: Whose slave are you? Whom do you fear? If you are God’s slave, if you fear Him, then you have true joy. So praise Him! Rejoice in Him!

Look now at verse 6: a voice described identically to that of the 144,000 - that is, all God’s people – in 14:2,3, cries out:,

“Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory”

This last phrase gives a biblical foundation for the first question in the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “What is the chief end of man?” “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.” Those are the commands in this verse: Rejoice! Exult! Have true joy – in God! Glorify God!

Why should God’s people exult and glorify Him? Keep reading:

for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and the Bride has made herself ready; it was granted to her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure, for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints.  Revelation 19:7-8

There is true joy indeed when the bride and groom come together in marriage.

Last month I had the privilege of marrying my daughter Erin to her fiancé Luke. Standing just a few feet away from her, I was able to look into her face as she said these long-awaited vows, as she drank in the moment, delighting in her husband who loved her, delighting in the God who so graciously orchestrated this relationship. Completely at ease, knowing this was exactly what she most wanted, she was full of joy.

That’s the type of joy we have as the Bride of Christ. And, indeed, that’s the type of joy God has in us! Isaiah tells us:

As the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you. Isaiah 62:5 

The Bride of Christ contrasts sharply with Babylon, the prostitute. Although both are dressed in linen (18:16), there the similarities end. The adornment of the Bride is simple and pure, not extravagant or gaudy or alluring like that of the prostitute. Furthermore, their actions are opposite: the Bride has righteous deeds (verse 8), while the prostitute is guilty of immorality, adulteries, abominations, and drinking the blood of the saints.

But the Bride contrasts not only with Babylon, but also with the picture of the present-day church in chapters 2 and 3. We already noted the temptation to be like Babylon that faces the church, as in 3:14-21, the letter to Laodicea. But throughout chapters 2 and 3, the church is pictured as persecuted, weak, and tempted; in some cases, she is giving in to temptation. The church does not look anywhere near perfect! Again and again, Jesus says, “To the one who conquers, who overcomes, I will give . . .” and then makes a promise. Particularly relevant to us is 3:5:

The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels.

Do you see? In chapter 19, this has taken place! The Bride has conquered! The bride has her new robes! She has overcome Satan by the blood of the Lamb (12:11)!

This leads us to ask: What is the source of the Bride’s righteousness? How does she overcome? There seems to be a contradiction between verses 7 and 8. Verse 7 says she made herself ready. Verse 8 says “it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen”.

Once again, and Old Testament allusion helps. The picture here is similar to Isaiah 61:10-62:5. Look at the first verse of that passage:

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD; my soul shall exult in my God, for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation; he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself like a priest with a beautiful headdress, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.

Do you see the contrast here also? “He has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me.” God did it! But then Isaiah goes on to say that this is “as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”

An important truth is captured by the tension between these ideas. Our positional righteousness, the imputed righteousness of Christ, our standing before God, is completely the result of God’s work. He forgives our sins on the basis of the shed blood of Jesus, and declares us righteous by crediting us with the perfect obedience of Jesus. We become practically righteous, living out righteousness day by day and minute by minute, also by the power of God. But here, we are told to work out this aspect of our salvation by continually turning to Him in active dependence. We are active agents – even while God does the work. Philippians 2:12-13 summarizes this important idea:

Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you

Just so with the Bride. She makes herself ready. She overcomes, or conquers. How is she able to do this? Because it is granted to her.

Finally, look at 19:9:

And the angel said to me, "Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb." And he said to me, "These are the true words of God."

My friends, these are the true words of God.

There is no eternal joy apart from the invitation to the marriage supper of the Lamb;

There is no true delight apart from the delight of Jesus Christ rejoicing over you as His bride;

There is no true greatness apart of the greatness that comes from being in the family of God.

Greg Beale sums up this idea: 

The point is that the chief purpose of humanity, according to the Apocalypse, is to glorify God and to enjoy him, not to glorify oneself and enjoy one’s own achievements (e.g., 4:11; 5:12-13; 7:12; 15:3-4; 16:9; 19:1, 7). Self-glorification necessitates judgment in which a forced humbling occurs. It is idolatrous for Babylon and her allies to call themselves “great”. This title is reserved only for God. . . . To focus on humanity as the center of everything and to forget God is the greatest sin.

My friends: Have you focused on your life, your career, your comfort, your degree, your job, or your family as the center of everything? Have you gloried in your accomplishments, your achievements?

All those things are disappearing. All those things are to be burned up. All false joy and false greatness will disappear. Only God is great.

So stop trying to make yourself great by your powers! Stop resisting God’s call on your life!

Jesus says:

 “Those whom I love I reprove and discipline. So be earnest and repent!” Revelation 3:19

Repent! Turn! Trust!

And you will find true joy and true greatness – for all eternity.

This sermon was preached at Desiring God Community Church in Charlotte, NC on 7/31/05. Greg Beale’s The Book of Revelation (Eerdmans, 1999) was even more helpful than usual. The quote is from page 921.

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