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God of Power
Fall Quarter: Celebrating God
Unit 3: Visions of Praise
Sunday school lesson for the week of November 14, 2021
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard
Background Scripture: Revelation 11: 11-19
Key Scripture (NIV):
“The 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 Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.’” Rev. 11:15
Aims of the Lesson
- To understand the nature and importance of symbols and visions in Revelation.
- To understand the nature of God’s Kingdom both now, and to come.
- To understand Jesus as the embodiment of the Kingdom.
- To understand the reign of God over all.
Revelation, from chapter 4 forward, consists of God’s revelation through visions and images. The vision in the Bible does not originate in the self, it comes from God. John was given the high privilege of gazing into the last days and the coming Kingdom. However, again, he must describe what he sees in “human words.” We must always remember the transcendent exists more fully beyond our words. Indeed, we do “see through a glass dimly.” These revelatory visions are a gift from God. They are not intended to create a timeline of the last days. They are a message of hope and triumph that after all the events of human history draw to a close, the reign of God exists and triumph!
Again, the revelations in the book are also images. God reveals to John using images with which John is acquainted. Some might ask, “Why didn’t God just allow us to see the fullness of eternity without images?” We could not grasp it! Eternity is beyond human comprehension. Therefore, we bow in gratitude that God has allowed us to perceive the coming Kingdom with our limited eyesight and understanding. John did not create the images, he only received them; thus, the title of the book, “Revelation.” Why give us these specific images? Again, life can become brutal and frightful. Our strength to persevere and endure emerges from the knowledge that in the end all will be more than well.
We also must acknowledge the use of numerology in Revelation. Numbers like 3,7,12, or multiples of them occur throughout the book. The numbers themselves are seen as pointing to eternal reality. Another entire lesson, or more, could be devoted to understanding biblical numerology.
When we study biblical visions and images we must always remind ourselves that these images and symbols point to a greater reality. They were images the early Church could understand, and many knew to what or whom the images pointed. Many are too quick to read the images as literal. For example, we are given the dimensions of the Holy City. These dimensions were large to John and his audience. They were also expressed in numbers that pointed to eternal reality. However, our eternal destiny is just that, “eternal.” Therefore, no size can be assigned. However, we cannot even imagine “no size.” Thus, we have received the beautiful image of a large, holy, radiant city. This is just one of many images that point to an even greater reality. Yes, there is a destiny, an eternal gift of eternal life made possible through Jesus Christ. We can catch a glimpse of it in John. This glimpse is enough to comfort and strengthen the human heart and spirit.
Consequently, we should “take off our shoes,” for we stand on holy ground when reading and studying Scripture. We should never be afraid to study the Bible. We are invited to read and study the sacred texts. Yet, we must always approach Scripture with humility and reverence, for it points to truth and the eternal.
Are there acts of preparation in which you engage prior to studying Scripture? Can you share them? How do you help yourself gain a sense of the revered and sacred Word? If another is sharing or teaching Scripture, how can you prepare to hear with an open ear and heart? How do you understand images and visions in the Bible? Are you able to comprehend our limitations when seeking to grasp the eternal? How does Jesus help us see, experience, and understand the eternal?
The Messages of the Visions and Images in Revelation 11
The Message of the Seventh Angel
Had we been present with John, we would have heard the blast of the trumpet accompanied by “loud” voices in heaven. John could have omitted the word “loud” and the text would read pretty much the same. However, he intentionally wants the reader to know the voices were loud. The trumpet and loud voices call us to “pay attention.” These terms imply all the world must hear. Of course, every word is important in Scripture; however, we must not move too quickly beyond an expression of truth. We need to pay attention with attentive ears. God forbid the human ear grow so accustomed to hearing the sacred that it is taken for granted. The Spirit calls us in life to pay attention. Though we’ve read biblical texts many times, there are moments when the same text leaps from the page and grabs our attention. It is the right Word for the right time. There are moments in life when the Word expresses itself through creation or others. I shared weeks ago that my young daughter once asked to look at a flower. I looked and affirmed it was pretty. However, she said, “But Dad, it’s really pretty!” These moments call us to slow down, look and listen, for God wants our attention. God is calling us to see that which is “really pretty.” Life can prove so loud it becomes overwhelming. I don’t personally believe God is in a shouting match with the world. Even the whisper of God is more powerful that the loudest noise. God will seek our attention, yet we must learn to see and hear the eternal in this fleeting world. It is true that often God speaks in a still small voice as the Lord spoke to Elijah. However, there are moments when God’s truth confronts and calls us to note the obvious.
In this text of Rev. 11, the listener is called to pay attention in verses 15 and 19. We start with the trumpet and loud voices and end with flashes of lightening, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake, and a severe hailstorm. The entirety of Revelation calls us to sit up, listen, embrace, and proclaim.
Can you share moments in your life when God revealed he wanted your attention? Can you share a moment when a known biblical text seemed to speak to you with great clarity and meaning? What did God teach you in such moments? Can you identify the “loud noises” in life that are so loud we often miss what God is saying? How do you think we can train ourselves to pay greater attention to God in life, worship and Scripture? What do you think are the dynamics that hinder us from paying attention? How do you think we can overcome them?
The grand message of the seventh angel is for us to pay attention to the fact that God’s Kingdom is altering all reality until the transformation and redemption are complete. John writes, “The Kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever.” The idea of process and progression exists from beginning to the end in Scripture. Process and progression are therefore a part of Revelation’s message. In the Gospel of John, the first chapter, we read that God gave us the “power to become sons and daughters of God.” Note the term “become.” Our conversion was only the first step in the journey. We were immediately sons and daughters of God. However, we are not complete. We are becoming! The world even now is becoming the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God is present, altering the world; consequently, there will be a day when all is transformed. John is allowed to see and hear of this blessed culmination.
Have you the awareness that you are becoming? If not, why not? If so, what difference does this awareness create in your life? Can you recognize this journey by looking at your past? Is your church helping people realize the reality of this blessed journey? If not, what can your church do to help? What are some ways your church can acknowledge the destiny of God’s people? In what ways can we celebrate what is to come as it exists in the here and now?
The angel further declares that this Kingdom is the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah. This line can create some unnecessary struggle. It is obvious from New Testament writings that the belief in one God is paramount. Here it sounds as though the divine is “split” into “the Lord” and “his Messiah.” The trinity remains one of the great mysteries of our faith. We will not grasp it in our lifetime. In all the realities of the universe, is there a reality where three indeed is one? Certainly in the realm of the eternal it is so. Again, our minds cannot grasp such an idea, for we are three, perhaps four, dimensional. If there were 1,000 dimensions of reality in the cosmos, God is above and beyond all of them. God made them! Thus, we must accept mystery as a vital part of faith. Mystery keeps us looking and seeking. Mystery drives us to our knees!
Most often the trinity is expressed as an integral whole of Father, Son and Spirit. We speak of the three facets of the trinity as though we can separate them. Such separation assists us in conversing and studying the nature of God. It is helpful that we can study God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We attempt to help people grasp the trinity with images such as a triangle. Yet, like all attempts, the image falls so far short. I once attempted to help another understand the trinity by referring to my own existence. I am one physical body that can think and act. My thought originates within me, and I express that thought in word and action. There is me, my thoughts, and my action. They are one integral whole. We cannot separate them or I cease to exist. Still, I am attempting to describe God, the sum total of all reality, using my frail humanity. It is best to accept by faith and bow in mystery.
John is inspired to separate the Lord and his Messiah as a means to understand the Kingdom. God’s Kingdom is eternal and has always been moving in human life. The Messiah, Jesus, was the embodiment of this Kingdom in flesh and blood that we might understand the Kingdom and the nature of God. God is the creator of the Kingdom. The Messiah is the instrument through which this Kingdom has been revealed. John’s omission of the Holy Spirit in no way means he doesn’t believe in the triune God. The image of the Lord and his Messiah are simply useful for “this particular vision.”
The Message of the 24 Elders
Again, the number 24 is a number of eternal value. It is the multiple of 12, which represents the tribes of Israel and the disciples of Jesus. Many believe the 24 elders represent the biblical priesthood. In both the Old and New Testament eras, priests were often corrupt. Many abused their position for personal gain and suffered God’s anger in doing so. As Jesus’ day arrived, many of the priests held positions of power and again, used this power for personal gain at the expense of the masses. The position of High Priest was the highest position a priest could hold. Only the High Priest could perform certain functions in the temple, especially on the Day of Atonement. Only the High Priest could enter the Holy Place and pour the sacrificial blood atop the Ark. This was an act of great necessity for the Jewish people. This was their means of being forgiven! Thus, the corrupting dynamic of power crept into the heart of the High Priest. In Jesus’ day, the High Priest had become a political appointment. Thus, the priest was aligned with Rome. The High Priest Caiaphas played a powerful role in the Sanhedrin (the 70 elders of Israel and the High Priest). Caiaphas was very instrumental, as a political appointee of Rome, in Jesus’ trial and death.
As human history draws to a close, we are offered the image of the priesthood bowing before God in utter praise. Notice the phrase of the elders, “You have taken your great power and have begun to reign.” All rulers of the earth have lost all power. The power they possessed was a trust. God is now the powerful ruler of heaven and earth. Personal gain is no longer an enticement, for the righteous, loving God is judge and rewards selflessness. Also, notice the phrase, “for destroying those who destroy the earth.” All corrupt power in human history was and is destructive. It was and is not only destructive for people and nations, it is destructive to creation itself. Few us can deny the destructive power of many who have abused creation through the years. Those days have drawn to an end. The ruler of the earth is the one who made the earth!
The 24 elders reveal that all corruption and human power have been eradicated or transformed through the loving reign of God. All will be judged righteously by the Lord, both living and dead. We can often grow frustrated after witnessing abuse in the world. Certainly, we, by the grace of God, do all in our power to stop such abuse. Still, we know the Kingdom is here. It is transforming people even now, and will one day totally transform not only people, but creation itself. In Romans 8, Paul wrote that creation itself groans for redemption. That day of redemption is coming, and even now is working in the world.
Can you identify the abuse of creation in life? Can you identify abuse through power? What do you believe is our Christian responsibility? Do you find hope in the Kingdom of God as a reality in the here and now? Do you find hope in the Kingdom of God as a coming reality that transforms all? How is the Kingdom working in you now? How is the Kingdom working through the Church in the here and now?
The Message of the Open Temple
I, too, believe the 24 elders are a reference to the priesthood of Israel, for verse 19 offers a vision of the Holy Place in the temple. Again, only the High Priest could enter before the Ark. The Ark stood at the center of the Holy Place. Only the priest could even gaze at the Ark, which was hidden by a heavy curtain. In this vision, the temple is “open to all.” The Messiah has made forgiveness possible for all, and once and for all time. For the readers of John’s Revelation who were Jewish, this opening of the Holy Place was a powerful symbol of hope. God has allowed the sacred and holy to enter the lives of his people, and we are allowed to enter. After Jesus’ death, the curtain hiding the Ark ripped. All in its vicinity would have seen the Holy Place. Spiritually, that curtain was torn once and for all. The invitation of God to experience the eternal is open to all of humble faith.
In the vision, we are allowed to “see the Ark.” The Ark disappeared in the days of Jeremiah, following the fall of Jerusalem. It has remained “lost” to the world. However, for believers, the Ark exists in the heart. The reality of forgiveness dwells within us. In this vision, the people are reunited with the symbol of all that is sacred and dear. What was not seen is now being seen, as what is seen is being transformed. For years, Israelites engaged in pilgrimages to Jerusalem during Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Just to stand in the temple as the High Priest took the blood into the Holy Place was an event of eternal consequence. Now, the journey is complete. Jesus has walked the journey with us and for us. Humanity has been made fit for the eternal through Jesus Christ!
Note in closing, again we read of the surrounding sounds: rumblings, peals of thunder. And we read of the images: flashes of lightening, an earthquake, and a severe hailstorm. All call us to “pay attention!” The eternal is moving in the temporal! The reign of God has come and is coming in Christ!
Are you aware of the importance of forgiveness in your life? In the life of the Church? In the world? What are the symbols of forgiveness for you? Is it the cross on the altar table of your church? Can you share the symbols of forgiveness for you as you worship? Are you aware that you have already been invited into the eternal? That you are on a pilgrimage toward the eradication of all sin in the world? How does this message give you hope? How does this hope help you share the Gospel with a broken, alienated world?
Almighty God, our loving creator and judge of all, we come before you with grateful hearts. We thank you for the gift of Jesus, our friend, companion, redeemer and savior of the world. We thank you for all symbols of hope, and especially for substance of that hope in Christ. Help us see the Kingdom in the now, while holding fast to the reality that is to come. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.