Witness

Original Date: 
Sunday, June 14, 2015
Series: 

Revelation 10-11 Jesus Wins: Witness

JesusFreaks
Pastor Mehdi Dibaj of Iran was on trial for his life. An upper-class Muslim, he and his family had converted to Christianity. He had dared to translate Christian radio programs and books into the Farsi language. He was arrested in 1985 and accused of apostasy, denying the Muslim faith. For this, he faced the death penalty.

In Iran, social and political pressure is sometimes used to force Christians to recant their
new-found faith in Jesus Christ. Some are even tortured. Dibaj was imprisoned alone for
two years in a cramped hole with no room to stretch his legs. While he was in prison, his
wife, Azizeh, left Dibaj and was forced to marry a Muslim.

When Dibaj steadfastly refused to deny his faith, the court condemned him to death. But
after one month he was set free because of international attention that had been brought
to his case. Soon after this, however, he was found dead in a park. It is believed by some
that Islamic leaders had called for his execution.

Despite losing their father, his four children remain faithful to Jesus Christ.

As he faced the court that would sentence him to death, Pastor Dibaj said, “I prefer to know that God, the Almighty, is with me, even if it means that the whole world is against me.” He had learned the secret of being able to stand alone among men —standing with God. (Excerpted from: Jesus Freaks by dc Talk 1999)

In China, Pastor Li De Xian has been arrested so many times that he travels at all times with a small black duffel bag that he keeps packed with a blanket and a change of clothes—the things he will need for prison whenever he is arrested next. During the period from October 2000 to May 2001, he was arrested fifteen times for preaching in his unregistered house church in Guangzhou.

In 2000, Public Security Bureau officials also confiscated Li’s church and welded the doors shut. In November 2000, in the city of Wenzhou, Zhejiang Province, they reportedly blew up and demolished at least 450 churches, temples, and shrines. Government officials said religious leaders had built the churches and temples illegally.

“Don’t feel sorry for us,” Zhao Xia says of the Christians who face persecution. “At least we are constantly reminded that we are in a spiritual war. We know for whom we are fighting. We know who the enemy is. And we are fighting. Perhaps we should pray for you Christians outside of China. In your leisure, in your affluence, in your freedom, sometimes you no longer realize that you are in spiritual warfare.”( Excerpted from: Jesus Freaks Volume II: Stories of Revolutionaries Who Changed Their World: Fearing God, Not Man by dc Talk 2002)

Even in the modern, enlightened world of the 21st Century, persecution of Christians continues to occur.

The word martyr has come to mean someone who suffers and dies for their faith in Jesus Christ. What are we to make of the fact that Christians continue to be martyred today? How is it that we believe God will be triumphant in the battle against evil, and yet so many of His followers suffer so cruelly?

And, perhaps a little closer to home, we must realize that the word martyr originally meant, simply, “witness.” Any semi-serious reading of the New Testament will reveal that those of us who follow Jesus Christ are called to be witnesses for Him. We are all called to be martyrs. And so the question must be raised: how are we doing in presenting testimony of our Savior?

Another Split-Screen
We are continuing our study of the book of Revelation and we are in the midst of the sounding of the seven trumpets of judgment. And, just like in chapter 7, when there was a pause in-between the opening of the sixth seal and the seventh, so here there is a change of perspective between the sixth trumpet and the seventh.

If you remember from our look at chapter 6 and 7, I said that the pause was kind of like a split-screen. Not so much a “next-step” in the chronology of Revelation as a change of perspective to consider the people of God concurrent to the judgments of chapter 6. And that’s pretty much what is happening here, as well. Chapters 8 and 9 have focused on the reality of God’s judgment against the people of the earth, and now chapters 10 and 11 give us a look at the people of God. But whereas the first split-screen emphasized the protection from God’s wrath and eventual glorification of God’s people, this one focuses more on the task of witnessing that God’s people have been given and some of the difficulties that may be encountered.

In fact, as we work our way through Revelation 10 and 11, we are going to see that the church on earth has been called to a dangerous task, but one which will be ultimately triumphant.

Let’s make our way through the text, and as we do I’ll make six observations on our task of witnessing.

The Mighty Angel and the Little Scroll
Let’s start with chapter 10, verses 1-4:

1Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven. He was robed in a cloud, with a rainbow above his head; his face was like the sun, and his legs were like fiery pillars. 2He was holding a little scroll, which lay open in his hand. He planted his right foot on the sea and his left foot on the land, 3and he gave a loud shout like the roar of a lion. When he shouted, the voices of the seven thunders spoke. 4And when the seven thunders spoke, I was about to write; but I heard a voice from heaven say, "Seal up what the seven thunders have said and do not write it down."

This mighty angel reminds us of the mighty angel at the beginning of chapter 5 that conducted a cosmic search for somebody worthy to open the seals of the scroll. This angel—maybe it’s the same one—is given a fuller description in terms of his awesome power and majesty that shows he is a reflection of the One he serves.

And he carries a scroll. This is probably the same scroll from chapter 5 and 6—notice that it is now open. What we have is a process of transmission that parallels chapter 1 verse 1: The scroll started in the hand of God, was given to Jesus Christ to open, and then was delivered by an angel to John in order to be passed on to us.

This mighty angel also speaks, and his voice is the sound of seven thunders. It appears that we are about to enter another cycle of seven, but even as John starts to write down the seven thunders, he is told not to.

Now, I’d be lying if I claimed to know what this all means, or what these seven thunders are meant to represent. But it seems to me that here we have our first lesson about witnessing: as God’s witnesses, we must always remember that we do not know everything. God has chosen to keep certain things to Himself. Some things remain mysteries of the faith.

And so, as we bear witness to God’s truth, we must have a certain humility. We do not know everything. We have not been given all the answers.

God has, of course, chosen to reveal quite a bit to us, and we should know God’s Word well and we should speak with confidence about it. But at the same time, there are certain things (and the end times and the book of Revelation are good examples of this) about which God has kept things to Himself, and we do a poor job of witnessing when we claim to know more about these things than God has chosen to reveal. That’s one of the reasons these internet websites claiming to know exactly when Christ will return make me so uncomfortable. There’s an arrogance there that claims inside knowledge God has simply not granted.

So let’s keep reading, verses 5-9:

5Then the angel I had seen standing on the sea and on the land raised his right hand to heaven. 6And he swore by him who lives for ever and ever, who created the heavens and all that is in them, the earth and all that is in it, and the sea and all that is in it, and said, "There will be no more delay! 7But in the days when the seventh angel is about to sound his trumpet, the mystery of God will be accomplished, just as he announced to his servants the prophets."

8Then the voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me once more: "Go, take the scroll that lies open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land."

9So I went to the angel and asked him to give me the little scroll. He said to me, "Take it and eat it. It will turn your stomach sour, but in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey."

John is now instructed to take the scroll. History is drawing to a close. There is nothing more to be written. John is being given the task of bearing witness, of carrying God’s message of warning and comfort to the rest of the world.

By extension, of course, we now stand in John’s place. The scroll—the good news of Jesus Christ, the truth about this war between good and evil—has been passed to us.

And notice, John is told to eat the scroll. This is symbolic, of course, John isn’t expected to chew on the papyrus. But it gives us a second observation on witnessing: If we are to share the message of Jesus, we must know it well.

Eating a book takes it all in. Even today we talk about devouring a book. It means thoroughly assimilating it into the tissues of your life. “Witnesses first become what they then say.” (Peterson, 107) If our talk is going to be anything more than just gossip about God, then it must spring from His word living inside of us.

Lots of people have opinions about God, but if they do not spring from the Bible, they are just that: opinions. Just because a conversation, or even a sermon, has the word “God” or “Jesus” in it does not make it Christian witness. John is not instructed to merely pass on information about God, he is instructed to digest that information so that his very being reflects God’s Word.

And so, Bible reading, Bible study, Bible mediation is important for all of us. It is not just the domain of pastors and theologians. All of us who love and serve God should dine on His Word, we should take it in until it is the very fiber of our being. It was said of one old saint: “Prick him, and he bleeds Bible.” That should be a goal for all of us.

Verses 10-11:

10I took the little scroll from the angel's hand and ate it. It tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour. 11Then I was told, "You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages and kings."

John eats the scroll, and just as the angel predicted, it is bittersweet. Here’s a hard truth about witnessing, and my third observation: it’s not always easy, but we must do it.

On the one hand, the scroll tastes as sweet as honey, because it is the Word of God. Every believer should delight in God’s Word, it is the source of life and hope. But at the same time, it turns sour in John’s stomach. The same Word which brings life to so many is the sentence of judgment for those who refuse to receive it. John is getting a taste of the difficulty that comes with speaking truth to a world that doesn’t want to hear it. We’ll see this more in chapter 11.

And yet, the angel says: “You must prophecy.” This is not an option. For those of us who belong to the Lord, this is our task. God wills that his redemptive acts in history be known, and He has chosen to spread the news through us. Difficult or not, it must be done. Successful or not, it must be done. It’s not a special assignment just for Billy Graham types or for street corner preachers, this is a job for every Christian. We are His witnesses.

The Vulnerable and Victorious Church
Now the scene changes a bit, but I don’t think the subject matter does. John is told to measure the temple. Chapter 11, verses 1 and 2:

1I was given a reed like a measuring rod and was told, "Go and measure the temple of God and the altar, and count the worshipers there. 2But exclude the outer court; do not measure it, because it has been given to the Gentiles. They will trample on the holy city for 42 months.

Throughout the New Testament God’s people are the new Temple of God. Scholars say that the instruction for John to measure the temple implies a sort of divine protection for God’s people. I suppose it is sort of like when you buy a new piece of property: you go out and mark the boundary lines it because you want to clearly know what is yours. That’s what God is doing. He’s marking His own.

But notice, there is a part of the temple that goes unmeasured: the court of the Gentiles. In other words, the part of the temple that interacts with outsiders—the place where witness takes place—is unprotected. In fact, it is in the interaction with outsiders that suffering will occur. The end of verse two says that the Gentiles (that is, unbelievers) will trample the Holy City for 42 months.

Now, we’ve hit another key number in Revelation. 42 months equals three and a half years. If you figure 30 days to a month, this comes out to 1260 days, which is mentioned in the next verse. These numbers, as well as the phrase time (1 year), times (2 years) and half a time (1/2 year, for a total of 3 ½ years, 12:14) are going to be used a lot in the next few chapters.

Some people take these numbers as a sort of divine schedule. They believe once the end times begin, events will unfold in specific 3 and ½ year segments. But D.A. Carson, who is one of the commentators I am relying on for my understanding of Revelation, suggests that these numbers have symbolic meaning.

He points to the Maccabean Revolution of 167 BC. This was a major event in Jewish history, sort of like their July 4th or D-Day. At the time, Israel was under the control of the Selucid Empire and a thorough-going pagan named Antiochus IV Epiphanes. This guy was totally opposed to anything Jewish, and outlawed Torah reading, prayer shawls, and even had swine slaughtered in the temple (this is probably what the phrase “abomination that causes desolation” in Daniel 9:27 was predicting.) A man named Judas Maccabeus (the “Hammer”) rallied the Jewish people and engaged in history’s first known case of guerilla warfare. It was a time of terrible suffering for Israel, but eventually they were triumphant. Today, the Chanukah celebration looks back to this event in Jewish history. And the thing is:it all took about 3 and ½ years.

So, Carson says, this event was so significant in Israel that three and ½ years became a sort of short-hand way of referring to a period of extreme suffering that had a definite ending point. A way of saying, “I know things are tough now, but it will get better.”

The nearest parallel I can think of in our own culture might be something like the workman’s concept of hump day. Wednesday is hump day at work. Early in the work week, things are a drag, but you make it to Wednesday and you can begin to see the weekend. You’re over the hump, on the downhill side. Work can still be a drag, but you know the weekend is coming.

Carson says 3 and ½ years would have something like that meaning for people in the first century familiar with Jewish history. So it doesn’t necessarily represent 42 pages on the calendar here; so much as a period of time where things are difficult for Christians, but with a definite ending point when things will get better.

The next few verses, then portray the church doing the work of witness during this period of struggle. Verses 3-6:

3And I will give power to my two witnesses, and they will prophesy for 1,260 days, clothed in sackcloth." 4These are the two olive trees and the two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth. 5If anyone tries to harm them, fire comes from their mouths and devours their enemies. This is how anyone who wants to harm them must die. 6These men have power to shut up the sky so that it will not rain during the time they are prophesying; and they have power to turn the waters into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague as often as they want.

This is one of the more debated passages in Revelation: are we supposed to expect two actual people who will fit this description? The things they are able to do—stop the rain and turn water into blood—are reminiscent of Elijah and Moses. Are we supposed to expect Moses and Elijah to physically return to the earth like they did at the time of the transfiguration?

It’s hard to say. But whether you expect the great saints to return, or two people, it seems clear that these are types representing all Christians throughout history who bear witness to Jesus. The Greek word, again, is martyr. And whoever these two are, you can find examples of them throughout history—missionaries, reformers, pastors, and everyday Christians who take a stand for Jesus.

And what you notice here is that these witnesses enjoy supernatural protection. We’re going to see in just a moment that that protection won’t last forever, but for now here’s another observation on witnessing, my fourth: Witnesses will serve as long as God’s assignment for them lasts. As one preacher has said, “I am immortal until the Lord’s work for me is done.”

Many of you have said to me after coming through a difficult surgery or the like that God must still have a purpose for you here. And that’s a good perspective, when we serve the Lord, no matter how difficult the circumstances, we are safe and protected for as long as His assignment for us lasts.

But that doesn’t mean those who witness for God are always safe. In fact, the thrust of this passage is that witnessing is a very dangerous job. Verses 7-10:

7Now when they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the Abyss will attack them, and overpower and kill them. 8Their bodies will lie in the street of the great city, which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified. 9For three and a half days men from every people, tribe, language and nation will gaze on their bodies and refuse them burial. 10The inhabitants of the earth will gloat over them and will celebrate by sending each other gifts, because these two prophets had tormented those who live on the earth.

Here’s another observation: Witness takes place in the face of hostility. Now we’re starting to see how the stories of Pastor Dibaj and Pastor Li from the beginning fit in. The witnesses are protected as long as God’s assignment for them lasts, but that doesn’t mean they are spared from suffering, nor even that they won’t be killed for their testimony.

The “great city” here is probably representative of unbelieving humanity. The reference to “every people, tribe, language and nation” reminds us of the throngs of worshippers around the throne. Here, it is a reminder that while the gospel will have success among every people group of the world, it will also have its enemies. Those who will seek to silence Christians.

The inhabitants of the earth are portrayed as gloating over these dead martyrs, congratulating each other. From the perspective of the unbelieving world, Christian witness is irritating and guilt-producing. For those who belong to the beast, the presence of Christianity in the culture is seen as a damper on fun, a restraint on what they consider to be freedom.

And so, the Bible—and Revelation—takes a very frank look at the world. There’s no escape clause for Christians here that says “serve Jesus and you’ll never suffer.” There’s no promise that if we trust in God we’ll get taken out of the world before the hostilities get real bad. As our Christian brothers and sisters in China and Iran and countless other places throughout the world can tell us, witnessing for Jesus is dangerous.

And so the church is portrayed as vulnerable. But it will also be victorious. Verses 11-14:

11But after the three and a half days a breath of life from God entered them, and they stood on their feet, and terror struck those who saw them. 12Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, "Come up here." And they went up to heaven in a cloud, while their enemies looked on.

13At that very hour there was a severe earthquake and a tenth of the city collapsed. Seven thousand people were killed in the earthquake, and the survivors were terrified and gave glory to the God of heaven.

14The second woe has passed; the third woe is coming soon.

Those who are martyred are promised a resurrection. Though it appears that the enemies of the gospel have won, it is actually only a brief time before God’s servants will be vindicated.

Again, we see the number 3 and ½. But this time, instead of years, it is days. I don’t think we should expect a literal 84 hour period, but continuing the idea of a time of struggle with a definite ending point, we’re being told that the time of apparent victory for evil will be comparatively brief. In the end, God will raise up His witnesses in a way that leaves no doubt that they were on the correct side.

That’s how I understand verse 13 when it says that the survivors following the earthquake will give glory to God. I don’t think that implies 11th hour conversions so much as the realization that God is God. Sort of like Philippians 2:10 when it says that every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. It doesn’t mean they will all follow Him, but it means there will be no more doubt about who is in charge.

That’s what the end of chapter 11 proclaims as well when it celebrates the uncontested establishment of the kingdom. Verse 15, one of the key verses in the Hallelujah Chorus:

15The seventh angel sounded his trumpet and there were loud voices in heaven, which said: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.”

And so, the final observation on witnessing is the main point of the sermon: though the church has been called to a difficult task, it will ultimately be triumphant. As I’ve been saying throughout our study of Revelation, the main point is that God wins. Those who serve him may suffer, but they will be vindicated.

In This World
Now, I know this is a somewhat unusual perspective on witnessing. Most sermons on evangelism or sharing your faith are going to tell you why you should witness, or are going to give you pointers on how to witness. But Revelation 10 and 11 doesn’t do that, its intention is more to build courage into us.

“Yes,” these chapters declare, “serving God in a hostile world is scary and dangerous and may even lead to martyrdom. But have courage, there is a day of vindication coming.”

In Jesus’ final conversation with His disciples before going to the cross He told them, “In this world you will have trouble.” Jesus was a realist. And these chapters, for all their symbolism and mystery, also take a realistic look at the world. But in the same breath, Jesus said: “But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)

The church may be vulnerable, but it will also be victorious.