This Means War

Original Date: 
Sunday, June 7, 2015
Series: 

Revelation 8-9 Jesus Wins: This Means War!

A Book About War
One of the errors many people make with regard to Revelation is in thinking of it as a book primarily concerned with mapping out the end times. As such, they treat it like a kind of almanac, or calendar. They make every effort to link the symbols of Revelation to events in history, and they especially try to match up passages of the apocalypse to current world events. Because, the thinking goes, if you can make the connection between Revelation and today’s headlines, then you’ll have a pretty good idea of when the end will come.

I think this is an error for a couple of reasons. One, as I said at the beginning, is because I believe we have to take Revelation seriously as a book written for a 1st Century audience. If Revelation really were a book written to match up to 21st century headlines, then there’s no way it could have had meaning to John’s first readers. And I don’t accept that.

And the other reason I think it is wrong to read Revelation like an almanac is because I don’t think this is a book with a primarily future focus. Yes, it talks about the end of history, but I believe that is more a byproduct of what the book is really about.

And what is the book really about? War. Specifically, the ongoing war between good and evil. Revelation is a book that is first and foremost concerned with giving us a look at this continuing battle of the people of the earth vs. the servants of God. So, yes, it gives us pictures of the end of the world, because it’s important for us to know the end of the war is victory for God. But its primary concern is not so much mapping out the end as it is to sustain us in the midst of the fight.

Sound the Trumpets
We saw that last week as we witnessed the judgments on evil that came with the opening of the first six seals along with the accompanying vision of God’s servants being sealed and protected from God’s wrath. Now, we will continue to get perspective on this war as we open the final seal. Chapter 8, verse 1:

1When he opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour.

If you remember from last week, there was a delay before the seventh seal—a change in perspective from judgment to blessing. That delay also served to heighten anticipation for the final seal. Maybe this seal will usher in the end.

But instead, the seventh seal is opened to silence in heaven. If you continue to think of Revelation as a kind of drama, then this is a dramatic pause. It’s as if God is saying: “O.K., you’ve had a cycle of judgment, what follows?” And the answer is: more judgment. Verse 2:

2And I saw the seven angels who stand before God, and to them were given seven trumpets.

This time the judgments are symbolized by trumpets. Trumpets serve a couple of ways in the Bible. On the one hand, trumpets were used to warn of God’s approach. Trumpet blasts accompanied God’s descent at Mt. Sinai (Exod. 19:16,19); called God’s people to assemble for worship (Num. 10:2-3); heralded the collapse of the walls of Jericho (Josh. 6:2-21); and—perhaps most significantly—warned of the coming day of the Lord in Joel 2:1.

But a trumpet was also a war instrument. In the days before walkie-talkie and satellite hook-ups, if you wanted to communicate on a battle field, you’d use a trumpet. Different combinations of notes meant different things to the soldiers. “Do-ta, do-ta, dooo!” meant charge. There’d be other trumpet calls for other commands: like retreat, break camp, and so on.

The purpose of the trumpets here in Revelation, then, appears to be both to sound alarms, warning those who are opposed to God to repent; while also summoning the church to holy spiritual warfare.

At the same time that the seven angels prepare to sound their trumpets, another angel throws fire onto the earth. Verses 3-5:

3Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne. 4The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel's hand. 5Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake.

This isn’t meant to lead us to expect things to be literally falling from the sky, like meteors or missiles or the like, so much as it is a reminder that the judgments we are about to encounter do originate in heaven.

So, let’s consider the sounding of the trumpets. Our message today has two parts: first the warning for those who are opposed to God to repent. Second, the summons to the church for holy spiritual warfare.

Judgments on Nature
First, the warning to repent. Let’s read about the first four trumpets. Revelation 8:6-12:

6Then the seven angels who had the seven trumpets prepared to sound them.
7The first angel sounded his trumpet, and there came hail and fire mixed with blood, and it was hurled down upon the earth. A third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees were burned up, and all the green grass was burned up. 8The second angel sounded his trumpet, and something like a huge mountain, all ablaze, was thrown into the sea. A third of the sea turned into blood, 9a third of the living creatures in the sea died, and a third of the ships were destroyed.

10The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water— 11the name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter. 12The fourth angel sounded his trumpet, and a third of the sun was struck, a third of the moon, and a third of the stars, so that a third of them turned dark. A third of the day was without light, and also a third of the night.

Just as the first four seals formed a group, so do these four trumpets. And whereas the first four seals, the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”—were commissioned to bring calamity, here we get some vivid descriptions of the calamities.

There’s a strong connection here to the plagues that struck Egypt prior to the Exodus. The hail and fire of verse 7 corresponds to the seventh plague. The water turning to blood in verse 8 reminds us of the Nile turning to blood, the first plague. And the sun being struck in verse 12 reminds us of the terrible darkness of the ninth plague.

I want you to notice also the repetition of one third. In verse 7 “a third of the earth was burned up, a third of the trees.” In verse 8 and 9 it’s a third of the sea, a third of the living creatures, and a third of the ships. In verse 10 a third of the rivers are afflicted, and so on.

In chapter 6, the last of the four horsemen had authority to harm a fourth of the earth (6:8). Now, the destruction is more pervasive—1/3 is more than ¼--but the emphasis still seems to be on restraint. Things aren’t yet as bad as they could be. It’s as though God is saying to John, “You haven’t seen anything yet.”

I also want to remind you that these things are clearly symbolic. Take verse 12 for example. If 1/3 of the sun disappeared, or the amount of daylight the earth received was reduced by 1/3, that would be the end. Conditions on earth would no longer be conducive to life. So expecting literal fulfillment of these things is unfair to the style of writing this is.

But—and this is important too—saying that this is symbolic does not mean that this becomes unreal or unimportant. It is symbolic of God’s judgment on a rebellious creation, a judgment that is terrifying. This is horrendous language referring to horrendous judgment.

God is saying to us that there is indeed a war waging, and He’s involved in it. He’s inviting us to look anew at natural disasters and strange environmental phenomena. Things that we might have thought of as having natural explanations may in fact be a part of God’s displeasure over sin.

Woes to the “Men of the earth”
Verse 13:

13As I watched, I heard an eagle that was flying in midair call out in a loud voice: "Woe! Woe! Woe to the inhabitants of the earth, because of the trumpet blasts about to be sounded by the other three angels!"

This introduces a new structure to Revelation. The eagle warns of three “woes.” The next two trumpets are going to be the first two “woes”, and the third is going to come in the climax of God’s wrath towards the end of the book.

But what I want you to notice is the phrase “inhabitants of the earth.” In Revelation, this phrase is shorthand for those in opposition to God. Whenever you read “of the earth” in Revelation, you can assume those are people opposed to God. And while the calamities described in the first four trumpets seemed to affect everyone indiscriminately, these woes are going to be directed specifically at those who are at war with God (just like the later plagues only affected Egyptians).

Chapter 9, verses 1-12, the fifth trumpet and first woe:

1The fifth angel sounded his trumpet, and I saw a star that had fallen from the sky to the earth. The star was given the key to the shaft of the Abyss. 2When he opened the Abyss, smoke rose from it like the smoke from a gigantic furnace. The sun and sky were darkened by the smoke from the Abyss. 3And out of the smoke locusts came down upon the earth and were given power like that of scorpions of the earth. 4They were told not to harm the grass of the earth or any plant or tree, but only those people who did not have the seal of God on their foreheads. 5They were not given power to kill them, but only to torture them for five months. And the agony they suffered was like that of the sting of a scorpion when it strikes a man. 6During those days men will seek death, but will not find it; they will long to die, but death will elude them.

7The locusts looked like horses prepared for battle. On their heads they wore something like crowns of gold, and their faces resembled human faces. 8Their hair was like women's hair, and their teeth were like lions' teeth. 9They had breastplates like breastplates of iron, and the sound of their wings was like the thundering of many horses and chariots rushing into battle. 10They had tails and stings like scorpions, and in their tails they had power to torment people for five months. 11They had as king over them the angel of the Abyss, whose name in Hebrew is Abaddon, and in Greek, Apollyon. 12The first woe is past; two other woes are yet to come.

This is some of the most descriptive and terrifying language in Revelation so far. Going back to yet another Egyptian plague, as well as the language of Joel, John sees a swarm of locusts. But these are very strange locusts, because instead of attacking the crops as you would expect, verse 4 tells us they only attack those who do not have the seal of God on their foreheads.

It appears that these locusts symbolize demonic torment inflicted on the minds and souls of those who dwell on the earth. They are said to come from the Abyss (2)—which is symbolic of hell—and their boss is the “star that had fallen from the sky” (1), which is a way Jesus describes Satan in Luke 10:18. [Remember that? The apostles have just come back jubilant after a successful missionary journey of casting out demons, and Jesus says: “I saw Satan fall like lighting from heaven.”] Verse 11 also assigns their boss with the name of Abaddon or Apollyon, which means destroyer.

These demons are not allowed to kill their victims but only torment them, and that for a limited period of five months (v. 5, which was the usual life-cycle for most locusts). Their torture seems to their victims to be a fate worse than death, but for those who are afflicted verse 6 says “death will elude them.”

There is some irony here: the demons that Satan unleashes on the world are unable to afflict his enemies, those with God’s seal on their foreheads are off limits. It’s impossible for a demon to take up residence where the Holy Spirit is already in place. And so, the only ones he can afflict are those who are already on his side. The devil rewards his loyal subjects with cruel torture.

The sixth trumpet, then, is the final warning blast. Verses 13-19:

13The sixth angel sounded his trumpet, and I heard a voice coming from the horns of the golden altar that is before God. 14It said to the sixth angel who had the trumpet, "Release the four angels who are bound at the great river Euphrates." 15And the four angels who had been kept ready for this very hour and day and month and year were released to kill a third of mankind. 16The number of the mounted troops was two hundred million. I heard their number.

17The horses and riders I saw in my vision looked like this: Their breastplates were fiery red, dark blue, and yellow as sulfur. The heads of the horses resembled the heads of lions, and out of their mouths came fire, smoke and sulfur. 18A third of mankind was killed by the three plagues of fire, smoke and sulfur that came out of their mouths. 19The power of the horses was in their mouths and in their tails; for their tails were like snakes, having heads with which they inflict injury.

This trumpet summons a vast host of horsemen, two hundred million in number, to cross the Euphrates river and to kill a third of humankind. The Euphrates was significant as the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire. Beyond the Euphrates were the threatening and menacing powers of the East, especially the Parthians, skilled horsemen who were always rumored to be on the attack.

If the Parthians set the historical precedent for this vision, however, what is described is clearly much worse than any human army. Again, these appear to be demonic beasts, turned loose to wreak havoc on the earth.

But, again, notice that only one third of mankind is killed by this judgment. The impression is still that God is showing restraint. It’s not as bad as it could be—or as bad as it’s going to get. And the reason for the restraint, it appears, is that God wants to leave room for repentance. These trumpets are warnings, wake-up calls. Maybe rebellious humanity will come around.

But sadly, they do not. Verses 20 and 21 tell us that the rest of mankind will not heed the warnings. There is no repentance. They continue in idolatry, worshipping the work of their own hands

20The rest of mankind that were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk. 21Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts.

It’s one of the saddest things about sin. Once you walk so far down the road, sometimes you simply can’t turn back. You cherish your sin so much that even the threat of demonic torment or a Mongol hoard won’t change your mind. The sinful nature runs awful deep, and it’s going to take a mighty loud trumpet to get a lot of humanity’s attention.

Reversed Thunder
O.K, that’s an overview of Revelation 8 and 9, and a little insight on what God might be saying to us in these chapters. The trumpets are a clear warning to repent before it’s too late.

Before we wrap up though, there’s one more idea I want to go back to in the text, and that’s the call of the church to holy spiritual warfare. I didn’t say much about chapter 8, verses 3 through 5 when I first read them, but I’d like to go back to those verses now.

3Another angel, who had a golden censer, came and stood at the altar. He was given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne. 4The smoke of the incense, together with the prayers of the saints, went up before God from the angel's hand. 5Then the angel took the censer, filled it with fire from the altar, and hurled it on the earth; and there came peals of thunder, rumblings, flashes of lightning and an earthquake.

What I want you to notice is the idea that the incense this angel is dealing with includes the prayers of all the saints. This is something that we noted a couple weeks ago, in chapter 5, as a part of the worship around the throne in heaven. Our prayers are being offered before God in heaven, sort of like incense in worship.

But now, something really interesting is happening. This angel is taking the incense and the prayers—our prayers—and he’s lighting them on fire and throwing them back at the earth. What’s going on?

Well, remember what I said about this book being primarily about the spiritual war that’s taking place between the forces of God and the forces of evil. From the Bible’s perspective, every day the forces of light are pushing back the forces of darkness. And right in the middle of that battle, we’re given this picture of our prayers being tossed over the ramparts of heaven like so many fiery bombs. Our prayers are pictured as ammunition used by God in this cosmic war.

This is one of my favorite passages on prayer in the Bible. Consider the implications:

1) For one, this should reinforce for us the remarkable importance for our prayers. Our prayers DO make a difference. Here’s how I picture it:

Say I have a request to pray for someone’s illness. Someone is struggling with cancer. Is that a part of the cosmic battle between good and evil? I believe it is. Sickness is a result of the fall. God designed our bodies to be strong and healthy. So praying for healing is a prayer against evil.

Or again, suppose I’m praying for a couple that is having a tough time with their marriage. Is that a part of the cosmic battle? Again, I believe it is. God loves strong marriages. The devil has a vested interest in breaking marriages up.

Or I might be praying about a prodigal child, or for church unity, or for a sin in my own life.

And the way I picture it, based on Revelation 8, is that God is like a general standing over a battle map. And all of these prayers are coming to Him, and He’s got the big picture in mind, and He’s deciding how His forces need to be deployed and where the hot spots are and the direction He wants the battle to go.

And when God sees a place where He wants to go on the offensive, He commands His angels, and they fire those prayers back at earth. Suddenly there’s a rumbling and crackling and a shaking of the earth as God uses my prayers to make a difference.

So that’s the picture I have in my mind. As I pray for the person with cancer, or for the struggling marriage, or for my battle with sin or whatever, I imagine these huge catapults filled with burning balls of incense being fired over the walls of heaven right at the problem I’m praying about.

And that image fills me with all the confidence in the world.

2) Second, this implies that we should make sure we are praying for the things that matter. If our prayers provide the ammunition that God is hurling back at evil—and I believe that’s what this image in verse 5 implies—then we ought to make sure we are praying about the big issues in our world.

Do you get what I’m saying? God may listen to our prayers for a good day at work, or our pleas for relief to our back pain or for Aunt Mary’s trick knee—but those aren’t the only prayers God is interested in hearing. In fact, if I dare say it, those aren’t the prayers He really wants to hear from us.

I think God would much rather we took on the Big Issues in our prayers: issues of discrimination and poverty, child abuse and sexual trafficking, greed and selfishness, war and the abuse of authority. God wants us to cry out against injustice. He wants us to be alive to this war.

Let me give you some quotes:

Commentator Dennis Johnson writes that “Christian prayers are integral to the downfall of the gospel’s enemies.” (The Triumph of the Lamb, 142)

Thomas Torrance writes: "What are the real master-powers behind the world and what are the deeper secrets of our destiny? Here is the astonishing answer: the prayers of the saints and the fire of God. That means that more potent, more powerful than all the dark and mighty powers let loose in the world, more powerful than anything else, is the power of prayer set ablaze by the fire of God and cast upon the earth" (quoted in Leon Morris, The Revelation of John, 121)

Karl Barth wrote: “To clasp the hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world

Eugene Peterson quotes the poet George Herbert in calling prayer “reversed thunder”. Our prayers, which go up to heaven with little notice—ignored by the movers and shakers of the world—are returned with immense force. “Prayer reenters history with incalculable effects,” Peterson says. “Our earth is shaken daily by it.” (Reversed Thunder, 88)

Prayer has incalculable power. Let’s direct it against the things that matter.

3) And then, third and finally, our prayers commit us to participate with God in this fight.

These trumpet blasts are a call to action. As God returns our prayers to earth in fiery explosions against evil, who is He most likely to work through? Is it not us? Isn’t Christ’s reign best realized right now in us, those who bear His name? And so, even as we pray for justice to be established on the earth, it’s up to us to be working to make it happen. God has commissioned us to be his agents in revealing His kingdom on earth.

What’s this have to do with prayer? Well, in the Lord’s Prayer we pray: “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” And when we pray like that, we are actually committing ourselves to do our part to make it happen.

So it’s not enough that we pray for the hungry in Africa, we should also back it up by providing food. It’s not enough that we pray for the comfort of the hurting, we should back it up by visiting and helping. It’s not enough that we pray for the growth of the church, we should back it up by sharing the good news.

More than calls for God to do it, our prayers are commitments to participate with God in what He is doing.

And so the trumpets of Revelation 8 and 9 are not just alarms for the ungodly to warn them to repentance, they are also the military call to the church to join in holy warfare.