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November 7 lesson: United in Praise

November 01, 2021
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United in Praise

Fall Quarter: Celebrating God
Unit 3: Visions of Praise

Sunday school lesson for the week of November 7, 2021
By Dr. D. Craig Rikard


Background Scripture: Revelation 7:9-7
Key Scripture (NIV): “I answered, ‘Sir, you know.’ And he said, ‘These are they who have come out of the great tribulations; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’” Rev. 7:14

Lesson Aims
  1. To understand the grand message of Revelation.
  2. To gain an understanding of the images revealed in Revelation.
  3. To gain hope and trust that God’s righteousness and love triumph over all.
Introduction

Revelation has long been a fascinating document to the Church. It is combination of real time and futuristic events. It is both an epistle to the churches and an eschatological/apocalyptic prophecy. Eschatological and apocalyptic events are both related to the end times. We tend to use the term “apocalyptic” in relation to the birth pangs leading to the ultimate end of life as we know it. Revelation allows us to envision the ultimate end. In the end God reigns! Life triumphs over death, light over darkness, love over hatred, and good over evil!

The first three chapters address the seven churches in real time. However, in chapter 4, the book turns toward the prophetic. The chapter opens, “And the door of heaven opened.” It is at this point that John witnesses and describes the images of what is to come. The Old Testament book of Daniel is structured in the same manner. It also opens with real-time events and then shifts into eschatological/apocalyptic visions. These two books continue to confound the Church as God’s people seek to understand the visions. Some attempt to construct timelines related to the end, yet they always fail. Others attempt to impose the visions of Revelation onto modern history. Attempts are made to make today’s events “fit” the images. Again, most often these fail. The book of Revelation is not written for us to fully understand. We are blessed just by reading it. The book has a major theme that is all-important: in the end, God reigns over all, conquering every sinful, destructive element in life. The visions and images all point to a greater reality. In the Bible, the inspired authors write of the eternal, using human words and images. It is the best they can do. We are aware God is always greater, and the attributes of God far richer. When John describes the gates of heaven as pearl and the gems and gold present in the city, it is the best he can do. These are the most beautiful realities John knows and understands. Thus, God grants him a vision of the most beautiful reality he can comprehend. However, heaven is far greater.

The book of Revelation drives us to our knees in wonder. Mystery is a vital part of our faith. We will never know all in this life, but we seek to know all. We understand as we are able. We always remain open to revelations of light, hope, love, and life. Therefore, instead of forcing definitions and projecting events upon Revelation, we must simply read it, bask in its wonder, and find hope in its powerful message of triumph.

It is helpful to explore the images and visions. We can find meaning in them. We can gain a sense of the great events to unfold. There is a difference between exploring and imposing. We are explorers, seeking to grasp and understand. Though we will never fully grasp all, what we do grasp is meaningful. Knowing all is not as exciting as the act of searching for all. Paul understood the beauty of such mystery when he wrote in I Cor. 13, “Now we see as through a glass dimly, then we shall see face to face.”

Theologically, Revelation offers us a vision of the Kingdom of God, fully established. In theology school I learned the truism: “The Kingdom of God is here, but not yet.” The Kingdom of God has been present in the world from the beginning. Our sinful nature is able to taste that kingdom as it breaks into the world. When we see real justice, grasp truth, experience compassion and love, and find meaning and purpose in life, we are experiencing the Kingdom. The Kingdom of God was more fully ushered into human life through Jesus. Jesus is the attributes of the Kingdom in flesh. Jesus was the Kingdom revealed in human life. His life revealed the very heart of God and the attributes of the Kingdom. His death and resurrection revealed the ultimate end toward where the Kingdom is headed. Life will conquer death and all things evil and destructive. Revelation offers us a vision of what is to come. The Kingdom will be established upon earth as it is in heaven.

Therefore, there exists an intimate connection between this life and the life to come. At the end of our life we do not stop existing. We “pass” into the full reality of the Kingdom of God. We who are still seeking are eternally bound to those in eternity who “fully know and are fully known.”

Has the book of Revelation proved difficult for you to read and understand? Can you identify the reason or reasons? Do you tend to avoid reading Revelation? Can you state the importance of reading Revelation? What is your understanding of the Kingdom of God? In what ways can you see and experience it in the world? In what ways has Revelation enriched your faith? Is mystery a part of your faith? What do you believe to be the purpose of mystery in life and faith?

Our study involves exploring the major images within the text.
  1. Image of Pentecost: the great multitude
  2. Image of the Triumphant Entry.
  3. The image of the persevering family.
  4. The image of frail humanity utterly transformed.
The Images: Pentecost and The Great Multitude

John envisions a multitude of the redeemed so large it was countless. Of course, a multitude of people can be counted if a person had the means, the time, the patience, the memory etc. John reveals to us this crowd is so large it overwhelms our human ability. It is heartbreaking that humanity so quickly assigns titles like “us” and “them.” Often, our understanding of Christianity doesn’t extend beyond our personally perceived world. Each Sunday most of us confess our faith through The Apostle’s Creed. In this beautiful historical creed, we affirm our belief in the “holy catholic church.” The word catholic is an adjective, not a noun. It means “universal.” As Christians we believe wherever there are people who believe in and follow Jesus as Lord, there is the Church. We belong to a family seen and unseen, past and present. This number includes all, in every corner of the world. This family consists of Christians from the past and will eventually include those to come. This number is so large that humankind fails to fully comprehend it. Understanding the vastness of the Church should broaden our soul, our thinking, our faith, and our ministry. This vast number should also overwhelm us with grace. Though there are countless Christians, past, present and yet to come, God knows us! The Lord knows us as individuals so intimately, in the words of the psalmist, he knows the number of hairs upon our head, our rising and our sleeping, etc. Read Psalm 139. It might seem impossible for God to know each one of us that intimately. Remember, God stands beyond a cosmos of his making so large it is incomprehensible. Our frail humanity cannot count the number of stars and solar systems. Yet, our universe operates in grand design and purpose. Certainly, God can know us, all of us!

Revelation reveals the beautiful fulfillment of Pentecost. The book reveals the countless crowd consists of those from every nation, tribe, and language. At Pentecost, the Church moved from the Upper Room, into the streets, and into the uttermost parts of the earth. In the end, Christians from every part of the world stand together before God. The word “nation” implies a group of people living together beneath an overriding structure of government. It also implies that we share a common culture. Our expectations are very similar. Thus, John envisions every nation, every means of governing, all people sharing a similar culture will stand before the one throne of God.

The word tribe is a more intimate description of a people. Many share a bloodline, or a common heritage. We are the expression of those who came before. Thus, even those who do not share a common means of government and culture are included in the countless crowd. We are part of a new tribe, a new “spiritual bloodline.” We are joined to all others in the faith. The Spirit moves John to include “every language.” Language is our means of communicating. Language is the agent that allows us to address each other, and in turn, know each other. With language we share who we are and learn who others are. We share our faith and values through language and listen to the expression of faith and the values of others. Though our tongues are different and varied, we will all stand before God as one people, with one language of the heart. Many become confused in trying to understand the tongues, glossolalia, at Pentecost. It is quite obvious that the many tongues in Acts 2 were given for sharing the Gospel with those from every nation, tribe, and language. What began at Pentecost will reach its full expression as the Kingdom fully arrives. We will all praise, understand, and know.

Revelation offers us a vision of what is perfectly to come in God’s Kingdom. Yet, that Kingdom is even now present in the world and moving the world toward perfect communion. We are being led by the Spirit, through the Church, toward that perfect unity in Christ.

Is your understanding of the Christian community limited? If so, how does a limited perspective of the community affect your faith, relationships, and missional outreach? Who do you believe should define the redeemed? What is the destructive nature of limited humanity attempting to determine who is family and who isn’t? What can we do to enlarge our understanding of others? Within our nation, and its tribes and languages, what groups of people do we neglect when thinking of the redeemed crowd? How can the Church help us better understand and relate to the great crowd of God’s children? In what ways do you witness the Spirit moving us today toward this united family?

The Images: The Triumphant Entry

Following the perfect vision of Pentecost’s culmination in Revelation, we read Revelation’s perfect vision of the Triumphant Entry’s message. What began with Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a colt will be perfectly fulfilled in the Kingdom. In John’s vision, the redeemed stand in white robes with palm branches in their hands while praising the Lord.

Their robes, though washed in Christ’s blood, are pure and white. The Jewish people understood the redeeming work of Jesus through the Old Testament sacrificial system. Perfect lambs were killed and their blood was poured over the mercy seat of the Ark. Thus, their sins were forgiven for one year. The early Christians were Jews. They had no other way of understanding God’s redemption than the sacrificial system. Thus, Jesus is the “Lamb” of the world that “taketh away all sin.” Jesus was, and is, the perfect lamb, without spot or blemish. He offered his life as he bled to death on a cross. The people believed life was “in the blood.” Thus, Jesus poured out his life.

Through Jesus, all can experience the forgiveness of sins. We can begin a journey of purity. We are cleansed and forgiven, yet our journey toward perfect holiness has only just begun. In the end, all will be utterly pure. Thus, as those saved through the blood of Christ, we stand in before God in purity. Symbolically, we stand in white robes, praising God to the uttermost. During the Triumphant Entry, Jesus rode toward the cross to redeem the world. In John’s vision, that redemption is complete in the fullest sense of the word.

Do you understand your faith as a journey? If we fail to recognize our journey, how does this negatively impact our faith and life? One can witness the Kingdom of God in life through experiences of God’s creativity in the world, God’s attributes being expressed through people, and God’s personal touches that enrich your life. Do you notice such experiences? If not, what can you do to gain a greater and enlarged spiritual vision? Each of us has a starting place in which we were aware of the choice to follow Jesus. Some assume the starting place to be a one-time event. Were we taught that it is a beginning and that we are headed toward the fulfilled Kingdom of God? If we understand our Christian experience as one experience, we will miss so much of what God reveals in life. How can your Church help reacquaint you with your walk in Christ? Your journey is also to lead you towards a larger, richer community. Do you feel your spiritual family is being enlarged? If not, why? As one who recognizes the importance of your journey and one who is aware of your growing family, can you share how this enriches your faith?

The Images: The Persevering Family

In this vision, the multitude, dressed in white and praising God, arrived at the throne of God through perseverance in their faith. The final event of persecution was, and will be, preceded by many experiences of adversity. Persecution was experienced by the early Church and continued through the centuries. Even today, Christians in other lands often pay for their faith with their life. The perseverance on the part of the early Church was and is astounding. Persecution was so prevalent during the first 300 years of the Church that it was expected. I Peter reads: “If you suffer as a Christian, do not be ashamed, but praise God that you bear that name.” Martyrdom actually served as a means of Christian spiritual warfare. The early Christians did not fight with weapons or seek to kill their persecutors. Instead, they died for their faith. The witness of dying for one’s faith touched and moved souls, except for the hard-hearted. The faith of the Christian was real and evident; those persecuting were left in bewilderment. History reveals the more the Church was persecuted the more it grew! At Golgotha, such an event occurred. After a centurion witnessed the death of innocent Jesus he uttered in humility and wonder, “Surely this man was the Son of God.” When good, loving people die, the world around them is altered and often transformed.

We have few greater expressions of martyrdom than the death of James, the Lord’s brother. James was slow in coming to faith in Jesus. He was a very devout Jew and was known by some as James the Camel-kneed. He prayed so much his knee-caps were worn and wrinkled. He became a Christian following the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. James was so certain Jesus was God’s Messiah he refused to disown him under threat of death. He was taken to the highest point of the temple and thrown to the ground. He was still breathing, with an opportunity to change his mind. He didn’t. He was then stoned, and still breathed. At last they clubbed him to death. In the opening to the book of James he wrote: “My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance . . .” His belief that trials brought character and joy was tested to the uttermost. He persevered.

Our faith has been handed to us from those who suffered and kept the faith. There are still martyrs in the world. Their perseverance was and is the testimony that speaks to the heart. How does one attack the faith of so many who died for it? How does one ignore the faith of the persecuted? It is our non-violent weapon in the world; after all, suffering for one’s faith is difficult to ignore.

John recognizes a last great wave of persecution. Some try to predict such moments, but such efforts are fruitless. Believe me, we will know if we are in such a moment in our faith. These images are given to us, not to create a timeline of the end, but rather to bolster our faith in adversity, recognizing in the end, God reigns. All who endure will stand before God in the righteousness of Christ. The community of faith will walk out of persecution into glory.

Have you witnessed one who has suffered for their faith? Have you read of someone? Have you suffered for your faith? If you have suffered, how did you overcome? What do you believe is the effect on those outside the faith when they witness one who suffers for their faith? If we are reluctant to share our faith based upon what others think, how do you think we would respond to true persecution? Do you have hope and faith that, in the end, all will be well?

The Images: Frail Humanity Is Transformed

Our text closes with one statement that is powerful, merciful, loving, and hopeful. “And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.” This statement is “fleshed out” in chapter 21 of Revelation. Revelation grants us a vision of a transformed world. There will be a new heaven and new earth. The dynamics and forces that create human suffering will once and for all be eradicated. Instead of the dynamics and powers that force us apart, God’s love in Christ will eternally bind us together. Instead of the dynamics and powers that abuse and deplete, we will witness a new creation of life, thriving life.

Many of us consider this transformation as an event at the end. While this is ultimately true, we must understand that the transforming power of God is at work now. Remember, the Kingdom of God breaks into human history and draws us toward God and the Lord’s redemption. We can be renewed and transformed while we live. It is true that destructive powers can make life difficult, nevertheless, we have hope. Hope is the belief that God is with us in every moment of life, wasting not a single moment in moving us toward ultimate redemption.

God is our unchangeable creator. Though life is in constant transition, and sometimes chaotic, God’s love in Jesus remains. The tears may still flow from our eyes. However, they are temporary. We dry our eyes, take another step forward in faith, and await the coming Kingdom. We are only tasting the beauty and wonder of what is to come. In this fleeting, chaotic world we witness another reality, a greater reality. God’s love is here! This is the great reality that gives meaning to and strengthens our life. This is the great reality that was most fully expressed in and through Jesus Christ and will arrive in all its glory in the end.

The end for the Christian community does not mean “the end.” It means the end of our frail, weak, and sinful humanity and the coming of the eternal.

How does Revelation’s triumphant message give you hope? How is hope operative in your life? How does this hope strengthen us when walking through adversity and suffering? When the Church lives and ministers in hope, what effect do you believe this hope will have on the world?

Prayer

Almighty God, life often causes our legs to weaken and our hearts to race. Let your tender mercy and grace open our eyes to eternal life. Do not let our tears blind us to the glory that exists and is yet coming. Use our faith, love, and hope to transform the world about us. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Dr. D. Craig Rikard is a South Georgia pastor. Email him at craigrikard169@yahoo.com.

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