The End of The World: “The Agony of God” – Revelation 7

She grew up in a good home, loved by her parents…They gave her everything they could afford. They tried their best to discipline her well. They offered every incentive to do right… but evil’s enticements seemed too strong for their efforts. She slipped away from them – they could see it happening. Like a bad dream, she repeated one failed strategy of rebellion after and another, and from every thing in her life that she declared as a “freedom” became a new prison. It was obvious to those around her, but it was impossible for her to grasp what she was doing to herself and her family. Her choices, each one, were excruciating for her parents. They would do just about ANYTHING to get her to wake up. They tried counseling, doctors, medication, intervention and a regular amount of pleading – but nothing helped. Their once obedient child simply didn’t want to do right anymore. They tried balancing love with a careful amount of applied disciplinary measures… yet the slide away from their grasp seemed sealed. Other families didn’t understand their “tolerance” of all her antics. They whispered behind the back of the family members that they were far too easy on the wayward child. Sound familiar? It does to God as well...I am not talking about any parent in the room. I am not talking about any parent that I have read about. I am making a direct, if feeble, analogy to the God of Creation as He deals in patience toward lost men and women – because He loves them.

Believers have asked down through the centuries the question of the martyrs under the altar of the fifth seal, found in Revelation 6. Last week, as we looked through the record of the seven seals broken by the Lamb that released judgment upon the earth from Heaven, we stopped for only a moment and peered back into the throne room – gazing under the altar. What caught our attention (and John’s attention) was the sound of human voices.

Revelation 6:9: “When the Lamb broke the fifth seal, I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God, and because of the testimony which they had maintained; 10and they cried out with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also.”

The question was respectfully posed, but incredibly simple: “How long are you, God, going to put up with the injustice of this world that brought about our martyrdom? How long will you let evil seem to win against good. How long will you allow the abuse of your Word and your people by unprincipled and lecherous children of wickedness?

Frankly, if you’ve been paying attention in the last fifty years, you are probably, at least on occasion, tired of God’s patience. It took no effort to pull stories from this week’s news to illustrate God’s patience with the evil around us:

  • Vicious banter continues about the “damaging influence” NFL football player Tim Tebow is having on the sport by “trying to drag church onto the field of football”. “It is just offensive to many of us that want to watch our favorite pastime without have GOD thrown in our faces.” One fan said. My reply: “Yes, I can see that Tim showing his own personal faith should be seen as a blow to an American sports scene so filled with illegal steroid use, dog fighting, gambling, and illicit sex, with teams that destroyed record numbers of motel rooms by raucous team players in the various leagues – it is obvious that the bowing of a quarterback to Jesus will just ruin the sport if we don’t put a stop to it!
  • Also this week, the GOP tries desperately to define a conservative position on the family by choosing from among men who have been accused of philandering (which have been removed from the contest) and men who have actually been caught philandering (who are still in the contest). Don’t get mad, I am not declaring a political position – just illustrating the funny way we have been led to compromise on the most important parts of our lives.
  • The USMC is now deeply involved in a video of alleged marines urinating on corpses of the Taliban. Deeply embarrassed at the alleged breach of well-known discipline in the ranks – the part of the discussion that caught my attention was NOT the marines that have been accused, but the number of people, some who claimed to know Jesus, who thought that such actions “served them right” for being our enemies. We seem to have forgotten that how we treat our combat enemies in our society will open the door to how our captured US soldiers will be treated.  We seem to have lost touch with the fact that such behavior is always wrong.
  • Penn State University President Rodney Erickson was desperately trying on Friday to distance the school from the sexual abuse scandal that has rocked the campus by saying: “It grieves me very much when I hear people say ‘the Penn State scandal.’ This is not Penn State. This is the (Jerry) Sandusky scandal,” he said. Yet crowds “booed” as he tried to explain why Assistant Coach Paterno, who knew of the abuse and allegedly did not immediately bring the details to light, was still on the payroll as a full tenured faculty member.

Now don’t get mad at me if you think that Paterno is innocent, the Marines are falsely accused, the divorced and remarried politicians are the best for the next election, or you just don’t like the look in the eyes of Tim Tebow – you will have missed my point. We are being bombarded daily with stories of moral compromise on the one hand, and attack on any kind of godly testimony on the other. These were just pulled off the banner of CNN this past Friday morning.

Don’t you just get tired of all this? Why… why in the world, why in the universe is God content to let evil men wax worse and worse? Why doesn’t he MOVE IN and cut the timeline. If you are not sure… ask any parent of a wayward child. It is a flawed analogy, I know, because God knows what broken hearted parents do NOT know. At the same time, the point is valid – God is a patient parent. He is a LOVING parent. He longs, hurts and hungers for His wayward Creation to return to His arms. In fact, God loves men so much, that He has TOLD US as believers TO MAKE THEIR RESCUE OUR TOP PRIORITY!

Key Principle: God values the eternal life of the lost of the earth more than He values the comfort of the saved. If that were not true, Christianity would lack not only martyrs – but missionaries.

Watching as His creation kicks and pulls away to its own destruction is no easier for Him than for any parent – it is agony. It is for that reason, that God continues to offer salvation to a humanity hell bent on pulling away. His patience comes from a parent’s broken heart.

If you have found rescue in Jesus Christ, He has asked you to GIVE YOUR LIFE for the Gospel, whether in faithful service or in painful sacrifice. That is not a theory – that’s in daily choices of our obedience. He truly wants YOU and I to put the call to reach others above the call to LIVE WELL and RETIRE IN COMFORT.

Let me explain from the Scripture. In any dramatic series, you are introduced to characters before there is a complete explanation of who they are and what they are all about. Revelation introduced the martyrs of the Tribulation, but only after gives you their “back story”. In Revelation 7, we get the fuller picture of who these martyrs are, and what God did in their lives. Who are these people? In Revelation 7, John focused in to tell their story for a few verses before the seventh seal opened to silence and the distribution to TRUMPETS for the second round of judgment. In these first few verses, we are able to pick put some of the details about the identity of the people referred to in this passage. Before we know their parentage or purpose, we know about their PROTECTION.

A Protected People

Revelation 7:1 After this I saw four angels standing at the four corners of the earth, holding back the four winds of the earth, so that no wind would blow on the earth or on the sea or on any tree. 2 And I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God; and he cried out with a loud voice to the four angels to whom it was granted to harm the earth and the sea, 3 saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we have sealed the bond-servants of our God on their foreheads.”

Revelation 7 is chronologically set at the beginning of Revelation 6 – BEFORE the angels were positioned at the compass points of the winds of the earth, holding back the judgment of God that was about to blow down from Heaven. The angels were to reap the harvest of judgment, as Jesus promised in Matthew 13… the angels are the reapers. Yet, in Revelation 7:1 they are held back by the command of God. Revelation 7:3 reveals clearly and concisely that GOD HOLDS THE TIME OF JUDGMENT under His command. No less than the “Author of Patience” Himself holds the briefcase with the button of final destruction.

Look closer at 7:3. God is almost ready to let the judgment fly, but something isn’t quite ready… He still has witnesses positioned to share rescue in the final hours. Who but an agonized parent would still hold out a life line to an angry, nasty and boisterous sinner? He is not unwilling to judge the earth, but He wants one last round of rescuers that will share His love before the curtain falls.

A Particular People

The chapter continues with the specific identity of the witnesses:

Revelation 7:4 “And I heard the number of those who were sealed, one hundred and forty-four thousand sealed from every tribe of the sons of Israel: 5 from the tribe of Judah, twelve thousand were sealed, from the tribe of Reuben twelve thousand, from the tribe of Gad twelve thousand, 6 from the tribe of Asher twelve thousand, from the tribe of Naphtali twelve thousand, from the tribe of Manasseh twelve thousand, 7 from the tribe of Simeon twelve thousand, from the tribe of Levi twelve thousand, from the tribe of Issachar twelve thousand, 8 from the tribe of Zebulun twelve thousand, from the tribe of Joseph twelve thousand, from the tribe of Benjamin, twelve thousand were sealed.

God’s team of rescue messengers sent into the time of Great Tribulation are none other than men and women taken from the hated Jewish people – the object of current world anger and future world hatred. If you were to arrive on planet earth from Mars today and access the records of legal proceedings of the UN, you would be amazed to discover that Israel is a place barely the size of New Jersey especially in light of the fact that overwhelmingly the most UN resolutions ever enacted for sanction are against them. In 2006, for instance, the UN passed on making a condemning resolution against Sudan in spite of the Darfur genocide, but put forward no less than nineteen anti-Israel resolutions.

Don’t misunderstand what I am saying – I am sure the Israelis may do some things that are not “kosher” (their own democratic free press says so) – but I hardly think a case can be made that they have proven themselves to deserve more than three quarters of all the condemning admonitions of the UN resolutions  – when that same illustrious body has failed to cite the violations of North Korea at all and –until recently, wouldn’t consider one against Iran or Syria. Anyone who argues the UN doesn’t have an unbelievable bias against Israel simply isn’t reading the sheer volume of resolutions and balancing them against real global threats. One of the evidences for the LITERAL RENDERING of the prophetic Scriptures is simply that God says that as the end approaches, more and more hatred will mount against Israel… soon you may well see many in the church world chiming in.

Nevertheless, look at the verses closely. There are 144,000 people that are chosen from the tribes of the Jewish people. Some may argue that “we don’t know the tribes of the Jewish people today.” That would be a true observation. Yet, the seal wasn’t determined by a human committee – it was placed by God’s emissaries on the heads of the “chosen-chosen”! A number of commentators take the time to share that they are not sure these people are Jews – but rather represent “Christians throughout the ages”. I can only say this: God isn’t on a cat and mouse game. He took the time to speak of things in the future, and I believe the clarity of reference to Jewish people by taking the time to name tribe after tribe is laborious EXACTLY BECAUSE He knew how much clarity people would need to get the identities correct. If He is NOT trying to say JEWISH PEOPLE, this isn’t only picturesque – it borders in misleading. I think it is clear by the fourth or fifth named tribe – these are JEWS set to witness in the Tribulation.

Now that presents its own problem. Why would God choose His witnesses from among the very people that are the object of so much wrath during these seven years on the earth. If you stay with the series until the end, you will see the incredible anger and wrath of earthly nations against Israel. Why not choose people who were more likely to get a hearing among the lost world’s elite? The answer to that question can be found in God’s “modus operandi” throughout the ages:

1 Corinthians 1:26 For consider your calling, brethren, that there were not many wise according to the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble; 27 but God has chosen the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to shame the things which are strong, 28 and the base things of the world and the despised God has chosen, the things that are not, so that He may nullify the things that are, 29so that no man may boast before God.

God isn’t interested in choosing men and women that can claim that others followed BECAUSE OF THEM. Let that sink in… God isn’t simply interested in making us more popular or famous to get the attention of others. He wants us to put our full attention on HIM and allow Him to direct our steps to the path that He will use in our lives. We don’t have to be TALENTED or the smartest kid in the room. We have to be surrendered to His purpose, and in love with His receiving the glory!

A Praised People

The thanks of Heaven will be exclaimed over these witnesses. Those who have been abused on earth will be lauded in Heaven! They have suffered on earth, but they will be like the selected Levites and Priests in the fabulous Temple of Heaven. The martyrs of the earth are Heaven’s best servants – for they gave their lives like the Savior and will be exalted in His work! Drop down to verse 13 and take a closer look:

Revelation 7:13 Then one of the elders answered, saying to me, “These who are clothed in the white robes, who are they, and where have they come from?” 14 I said to him, “My lord, you know.” And he said to me, “These are the ones who come out of the great tribulation, and they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. 15 “For this reason, they are 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 tabernacle over them. 16 “They will hunger no longer, nor thirst anymore; nor will the sun beat down on them, nor any heat; 17 for the Lamb in the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and will guide them to springs of the water of life; and God will wipe every tear from their eyes.”

These are martyred men and women. They have passed through judgment in 7:13 (because verse seventeen says they are wearing white robes – and Revelation 19 reminds us “for the fine linen is the righteous acts of the saints.” They are clearly believers, and they gave their lives IN THE TRIBULATION period – as is demonstrated in 7:14. They suffered during their earth lives. Some were hungry, some thirsted, some were burned by the sun, some tortured by physical heat – but all of them shed tears. They suffered for the testimony of the Cross. They bled and they perished, but they were prepared to celebrate the One they bore in Testimony.

They weren’t the first Christian martyrs – but they were going to be the last. Go back and thumb through the history of the church, and the company of martyrs is no small one. The New Testament opened the subject with Stephen, a deacon preacher killed for preaching the cross. The first Roman documented case of imperially-supervised persecution of the Christians began with Nero (ruled 54–68 CE). After the great fire of Rome in 64 CE that destroyed portions of the city and economically devastating the populace, Nero fastened guilt on a hated class called Christians. The Annals of Tacitus XV reported:

“…a vast multitude, were convicted, not so much of the crime of incendiarism as of hatred of the human race. And in their deaths they were made the subjects of sport; for they were wrapped in the hides of wild beasts and torn to pieces by dogs, or nailed to crosses, or set on fire, and when day declined, were burned to serve for nocturnal lights.”

In the Tribulation, such barbarism appears to be revived. Yet, we should not be surprised… the number of martyrs in the modern period has been steadily increasing around the world. During the Tribulation, God has a particular and protected people that He has suited for His search and rescue operation in the Tribulation. They will, for a time, be protected. Then, as the Tribulation moves forward, many of them will lose their lives in the struggle to bring people to God and to freedom from the grasp of sin’s destruction.

When they die, those in Heaven will not blame God. Heaven will not curse the enemy. Heaven will understand. God is a parent that will not let go without a fight. Men and women of all ages will stand before the throne. How many parents will condemn? Not one. They’ll get it.

Look at the record of the future, as secure as if it had already happened:

Revelation 7:9 After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; 10 and they cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” 11 And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures; and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 saying, Amen, blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might, be to our God forever and ever. Amen.”

Can you see it? Heaven understands that God’s rescue team was expendable on earth – because the value of ONE SOUL to God was worth it all. Heaven didn’t weight the “time they lost” because of their death. That isn’t the point of lifeto have more time on earth.

Down through the ages, believers have surrendered this life for the call of Heaven… and Heaven is calling still. God is looking for those who want to rescue others from a world lost in sin. He isn’t asking if you will consider being a missionary – because if you know Jesus,  and if you have tasted the freedom from sin that you got when Jesus washed you white as snow, YOU ARE A MISSIONARY. The only thing Heaven is waiting for is for YOU to acknowledge your identity.

  • A man is LOST even if he grows up in the shadow of a mega-church. He is LOST if he doesn’t ask Jesus to come into his heart, wash away his sin and take what remains of his life to use for God’s glory. In other words, Jesus died to make SALVATION AVAILABLE. Yet, many do not know it is available, so they do not grab onto it. They remain lost.
  • In the same way, many Christians are unaware of their calling to rescue the lost with the Gospel. They may have heard they should care, but many have come to believe that God saved them to keep their body healed, their bank full and their blessed life fulfilling. They have lost track of Heaven’s impulses. They have forgotten they were BLESSED to be a BLESSING to their lost neighbors and their dark communities. They have taken refuge in “fortress church” and become annoyed at the needy lost neighbors who keep mucking up their country with pluralism and relativism. They aren’t only unaware of their mission, they are annoyed at the object of God’s affection.

Men and women, God is calling a generation to step out and become uncomfortable. He is turning up the sound of marching hoof beats and sending signs in the sky. You can hear the hoof beats in the winds of the strange weather of our time. You can feel the rumble beneath your feet in the moral decay splashed across the pages of our newspapers. The thunder of the hoof beats can be heard in the desperation of America’ broken families and floundering family courts. We can tremble with the cadence of the rising hatred against Israel – a nation still in their unredeemed state, but with an unshakable promise.

You see, when the fifth seal was broken –  no horseman roared forth. No Living Creature thundered. All that was heard was a loud group of voices crying out for JUSTICE over the COST of their testimony. They were found beneath the altar in the Heavenly Temple –  a place where ashes fell in a sacrifice. They wanted to understand something about God’s plan. They wanted to know HOW LONG it would be until their cruel martyrdoms were remembered! They were affirmed when they were given white robes – a representation of their judgment as “righteous” and then told to be still for yet a little while – the killing fields were not yet full.

  • God longs for lost men and women to return to His arms.
  • God waits for believers who will feel the burn inside their heart for lost people around them.
  • God aches over each one who is desperately struggling to live a life on their own. We cannot find what we are looking for apart from Him!

I read to my students this quote from The Confessions of Saint Augustine the other day as a reminder: “Sin comes when we take a perfectly natural desire or longing or ambition and try desperately to fulfill it without God. Not only is it sin, it is a perverse distortion of the image of the Creator in us. All these good things, and all our security, are rightly found only and completely in him.”

We cannot be well without the Savior at the center of our lives. Lost men are held in lonely bondage when He is not enthroned in them. Saved men are rendered senseless – absent from their true purpose of love – working as Heaven’s hands, feet and voices to rescue others.

Someday soon the response of Heaven will show that they understand God’s patience with men. We will not fret about God’s patience with evil. We will know that God was RIGHT … even to put witnesses in the killing fields – that some souls would be harvested to GLORY. My God values the eternal life of the lost of the earth more than He values the comfort of the saved. Watching as His creation kicks and pulls away to its own destruction is no easier for Him than for any parent – it is agony. If it doesn’t hurt US, we may have lost our hearing… the sound of the hoof beats is approaching. Why is God patient with the evils of our world? Ask any parent what length they would go to in order to bring their straying child back home.”