In Death God’s Word Is Our Stay (October 22, 2017)
In Death God’s Word Is Our Stay
How are you doing? “Good” is probably the most common response. In general I think it’s a fitting answer, but it is also one which often avoids further questioning. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. You don’t have to get into your whole life story with the server at the restaurant, or the postman as you buy stamps. But I hope there are at least a few with whom you are comfortable to dig deeper when they ask again, “No, really, how are you?”
Life can be tough. It can be hectic. It can be messy. It can be tiring. How often has your life felt like the old Alabama song, “I’m in a hurry to get things done oh I rush and rush until life’s no fun. All I really gotta do is live and die, but I’m in a hurry and don’t know why.” Much of this is our own doing. We want to hang out with friends. We involve our kids in extra-curriculars. We want to build our career. We want to visit our children and grandchildren in faraway states. There are so many good things for us to do in life.
But sometimes it takes a different perspective on things to really get a handle on what’s really important. I had the privilege of seeing Pastor Radloff at conference this past week. Many of you know that he has been diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer. What do you do when death is knocking at your door? What do you do with your life when the vast majority of it is in the rearview mirror. Pastor Radloff has one thing on his mind – saving souls. I think since the diagnosis he’s become even more passionate and urgent as he organizes a program for spreading the gospel overseas. He’s not sure when his time will come, but he’s certain where he’s going. He’s not sure how much time he has left, but he knows how he wants to spend it – making others certain of where they will go when they die.
In the book of Revelation, the apostle John receives a number of different perspectives on life and the world through a series of visions from God. And he shares them with us so that we too might not be caught up with all the things that simply fill our lives. In chapter 6 of Revelation, John records a perspective of earth. There are wars, there is economic struggles, there is disease and death, and there are believers crying out “How long.” Then God turns John’s attention to what is happening in heaven during all of this. “I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands” (Rev 7:9). Two very different pictures. Turmoil and tragedy versus peace and glory!
“Then one of the elders asked [him], ‘These in white robes – who are they, and where did they come from?’” (Rev 7:13). Perhaps John could have given the answer on his own. Or perhaps he was still overwhelmed by the sight of it all. Maybe tears flowed as he recognized a few faces of those in white robes. Keep in mind what’s going on during John’s life. Christians were being fiercely persecuted under the rule of Domitian. They were hunted down, asked to denounce their faith in Christ or face a terrible death – often in the arena as a public spectacle. What made these martyrs so bold, so confident as death stared them in the face? What could really be worth dying for that they cling ferociously to God’s Word as their great heritage? Perhaps John could have answered who these people were, but like Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones, John too was willing to listen to a wiser and higher authority. Who are these in white robes? “Sir, you know” (Rev 7:14).
“These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14). While the effects of the gospel may not always be visible to us, as it wasn’t to John’s readers during persecution, Jesus’ revelation assures us that it is still God’s power to save. No matter what kinds of persecutions are going on or what kind of threats are heard, God’s Word is your stay even in death. Have you ever heard that you are foolish for believing that a man who died 2000 years ago is your Savior? Have you ever heard that you are wasting your time with church on Sunday – that you could be spending that time on other things? Think of those very early Christians who not only heard such persecutions but even faced death for them. Why do we put up with all of this? Why not just give it up or at least just become closet Christians? Because although you hear all these accusations from peers and fellow human beings, you also hear another story from a much higher authority. Whether you see thousands flocking to Christ or not, the gospel is what God says it is. “It is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes… for in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last” (Ro 1:16-17). And here John sees the end result of that faith – believers coming out of the tribulation into eternal life!
God’s Word is our stay even in death because it comes from the highest source. No matter what others tell you about life, what God says about your life stands true. He has an eternal perspective which is not distorted by all the hectic things happening in life. He helps you focus on what you really need in life.
Don’t we often run into that sort of thing? I always have to laugh at the infomercials that advertise a product saying, “This is the only kitchen knife you will ever need… but we are going to give you two!” And it’s not just trivial things. Every year there’s a new work out that is supposed to burn fat, build muscle, and improve your cardio-vascular system. Every year there’s a new healthy diet. Every year there is some new method of learning. All of these things claiming to be the best of their kind and to be exactly what you need in your life. But what do you really need in life? What is really important. From an eternal perspective, what is really going to last?
John sees two things that the believers have in heaven. “White robes” and “palm branches.” And now you are thinking, “Great, so you really think that a white robe and a palm branch is going to get me into heaven?” No. Of course not. The book of Revelation, since it is a vision, is filled with symbols and meanings. Essentially, the robes are an illustration of their record in life. Notice, these believers didn’t start out with white robes. The Bible says, “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Rev 7:14). They had to wash their robes and make them clean. Yet there is no special launderers soap which makes them clean. There is no special method to follow whereby people can wash away the evil in their lives by their own work. It is only the blood of the Lamb which makes them clean. The Lamb refers to Jesus who was sacrificed in our place like the Passover lamb of the Old Testament. We know that because of what these believers in heaven were crying out at the beginning of the reading, “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev 7:10). The Lamb is God. And the blood of the Lamb, which Christ shed on the cross, washes away your sin to make you pure!
The second thing John noticed was that these believers in heaven were holding palm branches. Did you know that an old custom was to put a little palm branch into the hands of a departed Christian at his burial? No, it wasn’t because they were superstitious. Rather it was a symbol of that Christian’s faith and hope. Faith in salvation from God and the certain hope of a resurrection to new life. Palm branches, in ancient times, were used for festive occasions and as symbols of victory and royalty. You know what victory we are talking about. “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O grave, is your sting? The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15:55-56). Yes, Christ rode into death before you – the eternal death of God’s wrath. As Jesus hung on the cross, he was forsaken by God – the punishment which we deserved. As God’s wrath was poured out, so was his love. Jesus died in your place, but then also rose to life again because the punishment had been paid in full. He goes before you into death and comes out alive! So you have nothing to fear in death because Christ makes you heirs of life! “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev 7:10).
You have all you need! Not the latest diet and workout. Not the most robust investment plan. But salvation from God! He washes your robe and makes it white. He earned for you the victor’s palm branch. You already have been given everything you need. And you hear this from the highest authority.
It kind of gets you excited right?! Kind of puts life into a completely different perspective. Life isn’t about the here and now it’s about eternity. “Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all [other things] will be given to you as well” (Mt 6:33). Unfortunately, there is still a lot we have to endure in the here and now. Actually, I shouldn’t say unfortunately. Yes, life can be difficult. There will be days when someone will ask “How are you?” and you just want to dump on them all your burdens and how life has been a downhill tumble recently. But in these times, remember your eternal perspective on life. This is just part one. Part two is going to be far better and far longer – in fact, it will be perfect bliss forever! I’ll get to that in a second. But you have that! You have eternity in heaven waiting for you. It’s a done deal because you have heard it from a higher authority and you have been given what you need to enter! So although this life can be tough, it’s also your time to bring as many people with you as you can! Tell them about the gift of salvation which is sitting, unopened, right in front of them. Tell them about the white robe that they have been given by God and the palm branch of the victory already won! Show them the only book on life they ever need to read. It’s all right there, laid out by the highest authority!
Finally, tell them about the relief that is waiting for them in heaven. “They are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence” (Rev 7:15). Part of a believer’s joy is simply being in God’s presence. Like that joy you feel simply being with a close friend or family member after a long time away. Yet mixed in with that is the sheltering embrace of the almighty arms which rein in the wind, push back the seas – the mighty arms which created all things and rule all history. “Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them, nor any scorching heat” (Rev 7:16). These middle 4 lines describe the freedom that God’s people will enjoy from the effects of sin. It’s a small list here, but it’s meant to capture every single harsh effect of sin that overwhelms us again and again here on earth. It’s all gone! “For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’ ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’” (Rev 7:17). The end of this section again points to the source of the believer’s salvation and joy. It is that “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev 7:10). You have nothing to fear in life. And even in death, God’s Word, your great heritage, will be your stay!