August 22, 2004
Revelation 17–20 contains a series of powerful images that depict God’s victory over Satan and evil. No matter what trials believers face, Alistair Begg reminds us, Jesus reigns, and history is moving toward a climactic conclusion in which He will be victorious. At the end, there will be a division between those whose names are found in the Book of Life and those whose names are not. With eternity in our sights, we must ask ourselves: “Is my name in the Book?”
Sermon Transcript: Print
Father, we thank you that you have ears to hear, metaphorically at least; you listen to our prayers. We’re desperately in need of your help as we study the Bible. We’ve been trying to get an overview of it, and we’re fearful that we may just have compounded the confusion that some of us experience. And so we pray that the Spirit of God will be our teacher, that you will give us alert, understanding, and sensitive minds. I pray, too, that you will open the eyes of the understanding of some who as yet have not believed, so that even this morning, they maybe come to trust and believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. For we pray in his name. Amen.
Now, I invite you to turn back to the book of Revelation, where our focus this morning and this evening will be essentially on the final four chapters. We are not going through them in detail. We’ll save that for another occasion. But we are seeking to glean from them the answer to the question which is before us now—namely, how does the story of redemptive history end?
The Bible makes it very, very clear that history is moving purposefully towards a goal, towards a very definite conclusion. And that in itself is one of the distinctive features of a biblical view of the world. The way in which a man or a woman views both origins and endings of the universe says a great deal about their conviction concerning faith. And the Bible is very clear.
And indeed, Christianity stands out on the pages of world religion, not least of all in the way in which it describes everything ending. For example, if you have ever talked history with a Hindu, you will know that they don’t have a very great interest in history at all. And that is in keeping with their view of the world, because they do not believe that things are moving towards a goal or towards a conclusion. They believe instead that history is just going around and around, that life is moving in a never-ending circle. And indeed, so much that we would regard as reality is regarded by them as unreal and as ephemeral as the clouds that are passing in the morning sky. So, the Christian distinguishes themselves, not least of all in this matter of how things end.
We reach this point this morning and this evening because we’ve been trying to get the big picture of how the Bible fits together. We’ve attempted an overview—a survey of it all—using the concept of the kingdom of God. We defined the kingdom of God as God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule, enjoying God’s blessing. And our focus today is to ask, as I say, How does this story end?
Incidentally, talking about big pictures, many of you will have taken photographs throughout the summer, especially if you have traveled. One of the losses, I think, of digital photography is the fact that you can see immediately what you’ve done. You can see immediately how bad you look. Or how good you look, perhaps, in your instance. I’m seldom pleased. I look at it and say, “Oh dear, is that really me?” But sometimes when you have taken photographs and put them in for developing and you get them back, you have this wonderful opportunity again to relive the moment in a way that doesn’t happen with that instantaneous digital work. And in doing so, you may look on a large screen and over the view of it all, and say, “Well, where am I in this picture?”—especially if there are many people in it. Or you may even find yourself saying, “Am I in this picture?”
Now, some of you this morning may have come to our study, and you’re saying to yourself, “Am I in this picture?” Now, on the authority of God’s Word, I want you to know that every single one of us is in this picture. The way the Bible closes includes everyone in the picture. No one is missing from the scene. The question is, “Where are we in the picture?” Because the Bible ends with division; the Bible ends with separation. The separation about which Jesus spoke when he said that the sheep will be separated from the goats, that light and darkness will be delineated and set apart, that those who believe will be separated from those who are unbelieving. And this morning, before our study ends, I want to give some of you the opportunity to relocate in this picture. And I want to say to you as straightforwardly as I can that the matter of our location in this big picture is not something that is of insignificance. Indeed, it is something that is of eternal significance.
Now, the final book of the Bible contains a series of visions in which John provides us with a glimpse behind the scenes of human history. Whatever else the book of Revelation is, it is that. The way in which John deals with things is often in parallel, in the way that you will often find in reading a novel. You read a chapter, it goes away, and then it comes back again to something that you were reading in a previous chapter, and it moves in parallel tracks. So that the book of Revelation should not be understood, as it were, from chapter 1 to the end of 22 in a long chronological line. To do so will be to get confused. We’ll be helped by recognizing that what John is doing is that he is iterating something. He comes back and reiterates it. He adds, if you like, layers of color and texture to this dramatic vision that he is providing for us of the end of the world. And what he does at the heart of it all—and I’ve said we’re in 17 and following, but if you look at chapter 5 with me for just a moment and verse 13—what he is saying to these suffering believers in the first century is what they needed to know.
What do you think it was that a family needed to know, a member of which had been taken away and beheaded? One of their family had been taken to the coliseum and had been devoured by lions. And as they sat and had their breakfast of a morning, devout followers of the Lord Jesus Christ, looking at all of the trouble that prevailed around them, all of the onslaught of wickedness against them, don’t you think they found themselves saying, “I wonder, is this how it’s going to be? Is this what it means to follow Christ?”
Now that question, or that kind of question, is not unique to the first century. People in the twenty-first century are asking the same thing. You may be one of them: “Is this what it means to follow Jesus? I thought if I followed Jesus things would fall into line. Things seem to be falling apart. I thought that when you gave your life to Jesus Christ, everything began to go swimmingly for everybody. But my family has been unusually unwell. My mother’s illness has an onslaught against her that seems just inescapable.” Now, what is it that the believer needs to know?
Here we are on the political scene again, just a matter of days away, before another great November saga. And as I moved around in the last few weeks, I have Christians coming again and again and again saying, “Oh dear, what is going to happen? What are we going to do now? What if this happens? What if that happens? What if so-and-so gets in? What if so-and-so doesn’t get in?” They’re all very good and interesting questions, and they’re not irrelevant. And indeed, it is vital for us to participate. But they’re not the ultimate questions, because all of the machinations of time and all of the ebb and flow of history is to be viewed in light of the fact that there is a throne in heaven, that throne is not empty, it is occupied by God, and God is in control. That’s the significance of what John says in chapter 5. He says, “I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, singing: ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!’ [And] the four living creatures said, ‘Amen,’ and the elders fell down and worshiped.”
In other words, Jesus is King—Jesus is King. And although many, as yet, do not recognize his kingdom, it doesn’t alter the fact. If we were to go amongst the population of Cleveland this afternoon, and ask them concerning the state of affairs of life, the prospect of the end of life, issues of heaven and hell, how many do you think would say, “There is really no reason for alarm, because Jesus is King of the universe and he is on the throne”? I wager not very many at all. And I’m not so sure that there would be many even among the believing community who would be able to adopt that perspective and who would say so straightforwardly.
So, the message of how it ends, the insight into what’s going on, is vital. Even though our friends, particularly in the world of academia, would say, “You can’t tell me that you believe that kind of stuff, do you? You’re not going to try and explain the universe in those terms, are you? You must be a nincompoop. You can’t be as bright as the rest of us in here. You must have got in on your father’s money or something, because any intelligent person in this university, they wouldn’t believe that kind of thing. No sensible person believes this.”
Well, you just tell them, you say, “Well, do you think that Augustine was fairly sensible? I mean, do you think Augustine would have made it into this illustrious environment of academia?” Any student of history knows that Augustine would have made it in anywhere at all. He could have taught in any of the greatest universities of our world, so intelligent was he. The story of his life was remarkable. Apart from the prayers of his mother, who knows where he would have ended up. Apart from the song of a child, who knows what he would have ever have heard of the gospel. But when his life was turned upside down, and after he had written his Confessions, he sat down about AD 413 to write a book which was an analysis of history.
Augustine provides for the church essentially the first philosophy of history from a Christian perspective. It took him thirteen years to write it. It is a classic, even today. And he explains history in terms of one overarching principle. And the overarching principle is this: that from the beginning to the end of time, since the fall of man, there exist two rival cities, two rival societies, two rival loves. And that by our nature, we are involved in the city of man, and only by God’s grace, will we ever be involved and devoted to the city of God. Quoting from his work, he says, “Two cities have been formed by two loves: the earthly by love of self, even to the contempt of God; the heavenly by the love of God, even to the contempt of self.” Now, people may say this is a very simplistic way to go about it. But, in actual fact, it makes sense. And in the city of God are the people of God. The city of God comprises God’s people, in God’s place, under God’s rule and blessing. The city of man comprises earthly society, established in stubborn independence from God. And the earthly society, the city of man, is destined to pass away. The heavenly society, the city of God, is destined to rule the world.
Now, listen to me, young people about to go off to college and university: You need to read these books. You need to get at least a synopsis of it and think this out. Because in the vast majority of contexts into which you are going, not only is this notion marginalized, it is completely rejected. In other words, if you are going to be transformed in Christ, you are going to be “transformed by the renewing of your mind.” And that is why the Bible speaks to the issues of our minds. That the heart of man is not simply the emotional response, but the heart of man is, if you like, the nerve center, the control center of the totality of who we are. And the Bible doesn’t call for us to disengage our minds in order that we might come to faith. Nor does it call for us to set aside our critical faculties in order to live the life of faith. And when we think this issue out, we realize how radical it is. Now, if you don’t want to read The City of God by Augustine, I will understand. If you want a kind of primer on it, then James Boice, in 1996, wrote a wonderful book called Two Cities, Two Loves, published by InterVarsity Press, and it will serve you well. A lesser piece, but equally helpful, is Colson’s book Against the Night. Both of those volumes will help you in this direction.
Now, let’s get to chapter 17–20: what we have here are a series of dramatic pictures describing God in the act of destroying the power of evil, which originates from Satan himself. Now, Babylon is personified here in chapter 17, and the opening verses, “One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, ‘Come, [and] I will show you the punishment of the great prostitute, who sits on many waters.” Babylon, which is the city of man, is represented as a prostitute. And the description that follows is not of physical prostitution, it is of spiritual prostitution. And Babylon, says John, is alluring and seductive and effective in turning people away from God. And her influence is significant, as the closing verse of chapter 17 makes clear: “The woman you saw”—notice—“is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth.”
See how this works? Babylon is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth. So, we ought not to be surprised. We ought not to be alarmed that everything apparently goes against the church—that the moral chaos, the unfolding drama within our own nation, the destruction of family life, the challenges to marriage… You say, “Well, what is this all about?” Well, man in his proud defiance of God and his ways continues to build his city. And it is very alluring, and it is very seductive, and it carries many, many people in its wake. Indeed, the kings of the earth seem to be going in that direction.
So, what is the believer to do? What is the person to do that is involved in the city of God? Well, chapter 18 tells us. Chapter 18 says that although we are to be in the world, we’re not to be of the world. Doesn’t say it in those terms, but look at what it says in verse 4:
I heard another voice from heaven say:
“Come out of her, my people,
so that you [won’t] share in her sins,
so that you [won’t] receive any of her plagues;
for her sins are piled up to heaven,
and God has remembered her crimes.”
In other words, the believer is to resist the advances of the city of man. The church is in the world fulfilling her responsibilities: we are to be salt, we are to be light, we are to exercise all the privileges that are ours as citizens. But we must not allow the thought forms and the agendas and the morality and the strategies of the city of man to so invade the city of God that the city of God ends up just looking like the city of man.
Boice, in that book to which I referred, makes this quite striking observation. Will you listen carefully to this quote? “Evangelicals,” he writes, “may be the most worldly people in America…. They have abandoned a proper commitment to revealed truth, and have become mere pragmatists.” How does that work out? Well, it works out in relationship, for example, to premarital sex: “Everybody is doing it, and so should I. After all, the Bible says this, but the Bible was written a long time ago.” Works out in relationship to divorce: “I know the Bible says that God hates divorce, but actually, I hate my wife, and I found somebody else nicer down the street, and I’d like to live with her. And after all, you’re supposed to be happy in this world, aren’t you? Who really cares what God has said?” And in many other ways besides. “Instead of proclaiming and teaching God’s word, the Bible, they are resorting to sermonettes of pop psychology, entertainment-style services, and technological approaches to church growth, which is a formula not for the increase of true religion, but for the end of it. Evangelical churches are growing, but they no longer have anything distinct to offer.”
You think about this for a moment. Even in relationship to Parkside Church. It may not be dramatic in its growth, but it is a growing organism, isn’t it? Why? Is it simply because we uphold family values, as the Mormons do? Is it simply because we endorse the appropriateness of establishing a framework within which we can live with propriety, as Unitarianism does? Is it because we can offer help and hope to people who’ve got various bits and pieces hanging off them or things that they can’t quite put together again, as the church of Scientology does? It’s certainly possible, isn’t it? I mean, I just read this week an article on Tom Cruise and his adventure into the world of Scientology—a fairly detailed article—and he identified his point of departure into Hubbard’s stuff as an attempt to deal with his dyslexia. And he said, “Scientology helped me with my dyslexia, and that was the point of entry, and I’ve simply followed the line from that point on.” Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?
Do you see how possible it is, then, for evangelicalism just to present a face to the world that is very appealing to the sort of well-heeled suburbanite who wants to have a fairly decent family, a fairly decent income, and a fairly decent prospect for his children? But where is the cross in that? Where is the story of redemption? Where is the fact of sin? Where is the necessity of judgment? Where is the reality of a life without God? You see, before I or we immediately assume that we can take the high road in relationship to a call like this, we need to face the challenge that he presents: “These churches are popular in many places, but the prophetic challenge and voice of the Christian preacher and teacher which has been the glory and strength of the church in all past ages has all but gone.”
Now, when we study Revelation, we’ll deal with that in detail. But for now, what we need to note is that this destructive scene in chapter 18 and the fall of Babylon—and it is a scene of great destruction, with the merchants of the earth weeping and mourning because no one buys their cargos anymore, cargos of gold and silver and precious stones and so on and so on. You say to this, “What is that speaking about? What does that even mean?” Do you realize how close we are, in our Western world, just to complete economic collapse? Where the price of everything is so astronomically high that no one can buy anything? Or that everything is so worthless that nobody cares? Oh, we sit here, and we say, “We’re in charge,” but do you know how much it costs for a pound in the last five weeks? $1.96 to buy a pound. When my auntie used to send me money from Carpinteria in California, she’d send me all this wonderful money, and it bought all kinds of stuff. It’s not hard to envisage a scene like chapter 18. But behind this scene of destruction, there is this great triumphant affirmation. And the affirmation is this: that neither the gates of Babylon nor the gates of hell will prevail, because Christ will build his church. As Luther says in his hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” “These things shall vanish all, the city of God remaineth.” Where did he get that from? Well, he was reading Augustine. And he said, “You know, that’s a fantastic notion.” And he was reading his Bible, and he put two and two together. The destruction of chapter 18 gives way to the “Hallelujah Chorus” of chapter 19. Look at 19: “After this I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven”—and the “Hallelujah Chorus” begins. And the story of chapter 19 is that Christ is victorious over all the forces of darkness.
In a very wonderful way, we find here that Christ is fulfilling the word that is spoken in Psalm 2:
“Ask of me,
and I will make the nations your inheritance,
the ends of the earth your possession.
You will rule them with an iron scepter;
you will dash them to pieces like pottery.”
Therefore, you kings, be wise;
[and] be warned, you rulers of the earth.
And here, the fulfillment of those words we find before us. Verse 20: the beast and the false prophet speaking to the issue of anti-Christian powers and anti-Christian ideologies, along with the devil himself, are cast into the lake of fire, and from that spot they can no longer do any harm.
Now, when you get to chapter 20, setting aside millennium meanderings for the time being, verses 11–15 speak to the issue of judgment. And I want you to look at that, and I want to read it for you, and I want to end here:
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. [And] earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.
Remember what we said about this big picture and the fact that we’re all in the picture? If you look here, you will find your face somewhere in this picture. Because all of the dead were raised to be judged. One out of one dies. “It is appointed unto man once to die, and after this comes judgment.”
Will you notice that the ultimate basis given here for rescue from the lake of fire is the inclusion of our names in the Book of Life, mentioned in verse 12 and in verse 15? The ultimate basis for not facing the lake of fire is the inclusion of our names in the Book of Life. Now the reality and the solemnity of this dare not be avoided. This is something very different from “Well, would you like Jesus to add to the sum of your total happiness? Do you need a little Christian help with your finances? Are you having difficulty with your teenagers and you need a leg up?” You understand—all of that can be addressed. We can have the best organized checkbook, according to every Christian principle evinced from Scripture. We can have our children all marching in step to whatever framework we have established for them. We can be cerebrally tuned in to the doctrinal distinctives of Christianity, and yet we may face the lake of fire, because the judgment of God will fall on those whose names are not included in this Book.
This is real. This is solemn. The necessity of faith shouldn’t be ignored; the opportunity to believe ought not to be missed. Any thinking person with any spiritual sensitivity—young, old, rich, poor, fat, thin, bright, dumb—is gonna say to themself, “How can I be sure that my name is written in the Book of Life? I mean, if this is how the story ends, in this vast picture in which I will be found, with a Book that is opened in which my name may or not be found, how can I have my name in that Book?”
And the answer that the Bible gives—and the consistent answer that the Bible gives—is that we may be sure of our name being in the Book of Life only by believing in the Lord Jesus—by believing in the Lord Jesus. That is why, you see, God’s mercy and his judgment are always interwoven. The Bible is urging men and women constantly to look to Christ, who will freely pardon and justify us as a result of our coming to him in repentance and faith. “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.” He called to the people of his day, “Don’t go down in the flood. God is going to judge the earth. He’s gonna open the heavens, and it will rain.” And they said, “Forget it!” And still he called to them, “Come into the safety of the ark—come into the safety of the ark.”
Do you realize that the invitation of God’s kindness to you this morning is, “Come on now, come into the safety of my Son, come into the refuge that I have provided for you.” “Come unto me, all [you who are weary] and … heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” Isn’t this the way the whole book finishes, in the seventeenth verse of chapter 22? “The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ And let him who hears say, ‘Come!” [And] whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life.” Do you hear this? Have you responded? Have you come? Have you ever come to Jesus? Can you say with the hymn writer, “I came to Jesus as I was, weary and worn and sad. And I found in him a resting place, and he has made me glad.”
The question is not, “Have I come to believe certain facts about Jesus or the Bible?” The devil is absolutely orthodox in his belief. The question is not, “Have I altered my external frame of existence from a lifestyle that was somewhat marginal to a lifestyle that is now somewhat more acceptable?” Pharisees abound in every religious institution on the face of the earth. The question is, “Have I ever got so spiritually thirsty that I said, ‘Lord Jesus Christ, give me that living water’? Have I ever recognized my own poverty despite the fact that I’m able to buy myself into most clubs in the city of Cleveland? Have I ever been prepared to recognize my own spiritual poverty, which has pointed me to the fact that I cannot buy entry into the kingdom of God? And that the invitation is to those who recognize it?”
“But what if he turns me away? What if I’m not one of the group? What if I’m not supposed to be in the Book?” Where did you come up with all of that stuff? Who has been filling your head with that? What did Jesus say? “Whoever comes to me”—whoever comes to me—“I will never drive away.” “You mean all I have to do is come?” Yeah. Yeah. And I want to invite somebody this morning to come to Christ. To cast yourself on God’s mercy. To move beyond the realm of the cerebral to the visceral, to the life-transforming—what will it involve? It will involve acknowledging that you failed to treat God properly: that you have denied him and defied him. It will involve surrendering your life to his loving authority. It will involve relying entirely on what Jesus has accomplished on the cross for your acceptance with God.
Let us pray together.
I’ve had in my mind, as I’ve approached this particular Sunday, that there are some here at Parkside who simply need to cry out to God and say, “I want to thank you for inviting me to come, and I come to you today.” And since you may be in search of what to do or how to do it, let me pray, and if you are able to make this your prayer, then pray it along with me. Don’t ask yourself the question, “Do I have faith?” Ask yourself, “Am I prepared to trust Christ’s promises?”
Dear God, I admit that I have tried to ignore you and resisted your right to be in charge. I no longer want to live that way. I believe that Jesus is the Son of God, that his death is the ground of my forgiveness for sin, and I receive it as a free gift. I commit from today to follow Jesus as my Lord and Savior, trusting and obeying him in the knowledge that I am eternally secure in your kingdom.
And if you prayed that way, you may want just to stop by our prayer room, talk with someone, pick up a piece of literature. You may want to turn to the person next to you—they may know you very well—and say, “You know, I prayed that prayer today. Finally, the penny is dropped. I have been trying to do this, trying to earn this, trying to achieve this. And now I understand it. I simply hold out my hand, and God fills it with this gift of his love.”
Father, you know each of us and you know where we stand today and how we will stand before you in the judgment. Thank you that you have made open to us the way of salvation. That when the Philippian jailer said, “What must I do to be saved?” or “How do I get my name in that Book,” Paul said, “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved.” Save us, Lord, today, we pray, and may grace and mercy and peace from the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit be the abiding portion of all who believe, today and forevermore. Amen.
 Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel and Kingdom (Exeter, UK: Paternoster, 1981), 47.
 Revelation 5:13–14 (NIV 1984).
 Augustine, The City of God, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998), 14.28.
 Romans 12:2 (NIV 1984).
 James Montgomery Boice, Two Cities, Two Loves (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996).
 Charles Colson, Against the Night (Ann Arbor, MI: Servant, 1989).
 Revelation 17:1 (NIV 1984).
 Revelation 17:18 (NIV 1984).
 Boice, Two Cities, Two Loves, 28.
 Boice, Two Cities, Two Loves, 28.
 Matthew 16:18 (paraphrased).
 Martin Luther, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” (1529).
 Revelation 19:1 (NIV 1984).
 Psalm 2:8–10 (NIV 1984).
 Hebrews 9:27 (paraphrased).
 Genesis 6:8 (KJV).
 Matthew 11:28 (KJV).
 Horatius Bonar, “I Heard the Voice of Jesus Say” (1846).
 John 6:37 (paraphrased).
 Acts 16:30–31 (paraphrased).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.