Ten Visions of Christ Triumphant
Part 3. Visions 4&5
The vision of the 8th chapter of Revelation goes back into the doctrinal field. It begins to look at the effect of Jesus’ death in the world here and now. It combines two related themes: Divine acceptance of those who take their stand with Christ and dedicate their lives to him in whole‑hearted consecration of all their energies and gifts and talents, and Divine judgment upon those who reject and oppose the goodness of God because their hearts are evil and they "will not have this man to reign over us." (Luke 19:14) Both acceptance and judgment have to be viewed against the wider canvas of God’s redemptive plan for all mankind; these relate only to the outworking of that plan so far as this present Age is concerned. There is another, the Messianic, to follow when the position of all who have not become Christ’s in the present will be reviewed so that the judgments of this Age are not irrevocable. Revelation 8 is largely a chapter of judgment, judgment upon those of successive generations throughout the Age who have knowingly and consciously opposed Christ. It is not the final judgment because their rejection of Christ is not final. It is a picture of the present Age as respects the attitude men take towards Christ and his Church and the consequences which that attitude brings upon them.
"Another angel came and stood at the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given unto him much incense, that he should offer it with the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar which was before the throne." (Rev.8:3)
There is only one altar in the symbolic visions of Revelation, standing before the Heavenly Throne in the sight of God, and that altar corresponds to the golden incense altar in the Holy of the Tabernacle and Temple, standing before the vail which shrouded the Most Holy wherein dwelt the Majesty of the Most High. The other altar of the Levitical ritual, the Brasen Altar of sacrifice in the outer court, would be manifestly improper in these visions, for the sacrifice Jesus made when He suffered death on the Cross was over and done with and He is now officiating in the presence of the Father on behalf of his Church. So the angel standing at the altar is Christ in his post‑resurrection status, bringing to the Father the offerings of his Church. This does picture, more eloquently than can Leviticus, an essential part of the Levitical ritual. Following the sacrifice of the sin‑offering on the Brasen Altar in the Court, it was the duty of the High Priest to take a censer of burning coals, with incense, into the Holy with him when he carried the blood of the sin‑offering to sprinkle on the Mercy‑Seat. He could not enter the Most Holy with that blood until he had first offered incense on the Golden Altar in the Holy. With that cloud of "sweet smelling savour" preceding him into the presence of God, he could pass within the Vail and present the blood of the sin‑offering in confidence that it would be accepted.
This is a picture of Jesus the Church’s High Priest in the doctrinal aspect, officiating in the presentation of the sin‑offering which is the means of removing sin from the world. Here again Heb.2 comes in. "In all things it behoved him to be made like unto his brethren, that he might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people." (Heb.2:17) That is what the angel is doing here at the altar. The Ransom has been given; the man Christ Jesus has given his life on the Cross and the way is legally clear for all men to return from the grave and stand trial for life. But that of itself does not give them reconciliation to God. There is a long story yet to tell before that blessed outcome can be proclaimed. And the first step in the programme is the selection of those who, like their Master, are prepared to pour out their own lives unto death in a daily dying, as did He.
The prayers of saints, ascending up as incense before God out of the angel’s hand, picture the whole offering of all who during this Age come to God in consecration and give their lives to be buried with Christ by baptism into his death. There is nothing indefinite about this. The members of the Body yield their earthly lives and all their endeavours on behalf of the world’s reconciliation to God just as truly as did Jesus. Their offering is accepted by God and ultimately is used by him, in a manner we cannot hope to understand, as a means to the salvation of the world. In some way there is a power generated by those lives of devotion and self‑sacrifice, which can have a profound influence on the minds and hearts of men and play some very essential part in the conversion of the hearts of stone to the hearts of flesh. (Ezek.36:26) Jesus, having already offered up the fruits of his own three‑and‑a‑half years of human life to be used in the interests of mankind’s reconciliation, now offers up the prospective fruits of all the consecrated lives of all his followers for the same purpose. And the Father accepts the offering. Henceforth it is true that "if we suffer with him, we shall also reign with him." Having thus laid down the basis for the ultimate reconciliation of "whosoever will," the angel turns, filling the censer now with fiery coals alone, no more with incense, and casts it into the earth, and the consequence of that action is the progressive sounding of the seven trumpets, each with its tale of judgment upon an unbelieving world.
This casting of the censer into the earth is for judgment. "I am come to send fire on the earth" said Jesus "and what will I, if it be already kindled?" (Luke 12:49) He knew, none better, that many who should have recognised his Messiahship would reject him, and He knew also that nothing now could save judgment coming upon that godless generation—as it did when the Romans destroyed their city and nationhood less than forty years later. This same symbol was presented to the prophet Ezekiel at another time of judgment upon Israel—the Babylonian captivity. He was to go in between the cherubim and take coals of fire therefrom, and scatter them towards the doomed city. (Ezek.10) Jerusalem was destroyed then, and it was destroyed again in the days of Jesus.
That, after all, is what Jesus foretold. "I am not come to bring peace, but a sword." (Matt.10:34) He knew that the message he brought to earth would be rejected by many, and since the hearing of the message brings responsibility, the rejection of the message can bring naught else but judgment. The judgment came first and heavily upon the people who first rejected Christ, the Jewish nation. Hail and fire, mingled with blood, came to the earth, and the Jewish world was destroyed.
So the trumpets sounded, one after another, each one heralding another phase of the judgment as the Age progressed, until at last the seventh angel sounded, and the judgments ended, for the kingdoms of this world had given place to the kingdom of Christ, who will reign throughout that Messianic era when all men shall learn of his righteousness and make their final decision for eternal life. But although it is true that God hath appointed that future day in which He will judge the world in righteousness (Acts 17:31) the fact cannot be ignored that there is a responsibility upon men now to do what in their hearts they know to be right. Every rejection of the wise counsel of God brings corresponding penalty, every persecution of those who do serve God involves retribution. The world today has departed from right principles to a greater extent than ever before in its history, the time of the Flood perhaps excepted; and the world’s trouble is greater in consequence than has ever before been known. "A time of trouble" said the angel to Daniel "such as never was since there was a nation" (Dan.12:1). But after judgment comes blessing, an opportunity to learn the lessons pointed by the judgment, and after this, the greatest judgment of all, comes the greatest blessing for mankind. It is then that the fruits of the "prayers of saints" offered to God with the incense of Christ’s own sacrificial life will become the means of leading men in right ways and bringing forth further fruits in turn in their lives to the everlasting glory of God.
A completely different setting is afforded by the presentation of the fifth vision. "I looked, and, lo, a Lamb stood on the mount Sion, and with him an hundred forty and four thousand, having his Father’s name written in their foreheads. And I heard a voice from heaven...and I heard… harpers…and they sung…a new song before the throne...and no man could learn that song but the hundred and forty and four thousand, which were redeemed from the earth. (ch.14:1‑3) Mount Sion (Greek form of Hebrew Zion) in Jerusalem was the seat of royalty. The king’s palace was on Mount Zion and so poetically it became a symbol of Jerusalem the royal city. "Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is mount Zion, on the sides of the north, the city of the great King." (Psa.48:2) Hence the Lamb standing on Mount Zion with his redeemed Church around him, and the sound of music and sacred song, speaks of a King and his followers who have overcome the enemy, gained the victory, and are resting in peace and quietude and unchallenged security. This is a state which is enjoyed to a degree by the Church whilst still in the flesh; they are seated with Christ in the heavenlies (Eph.2:6) and so are able to rise above the troubles and anxieties of this world. It is also the state which will be true of the Church at the end of the Age when the Lord gathers to himself his own but before He comes to reveal himself to the world. In a sense therefore this picture of Christ and his Church gathered together on Mount Zion is a link between those earlier visions which depict our Lord’s work for his Church from his resurrection and onward through this present Age and the later five visions which depict the varied phases of his revelation to the world in the Messianic Age, when his Church will be with him.
Chapter 14 goes on to speak of things that definitely have their place at various times during the Christian Age, from the proclamation of the everlasting gospel at its beginning to the treading of the winepress at its end. In great measure it parallels the fifth chapter and the breaking of the seals, but whereas the events of chapter 5 are those of the social order, these in chapter 14 are those of the ecclesiastical order. Naturally enough, therefore, the vision of chapter 14 has to do chiefly with those who at least have named the name of Christ, and it is out of such that the members of the "hundred and forty‑four thousand" are drawn. Hence the insistence of verse 4 that these on the Mount Zion are "they which were not defiled with women; for they are virgins. These are they which follow the Lamb whithersoever he goeth." In the Epistle to the Hebrews a pointer to this vision is given in chapter 3 v.6. "Christ as a son over his own house; whose house are we, if we hold fast the confidence and the rejoicing of the hope firm unto the end." This company on Mount Sion is a house over which Christ is the head; the fact that they stand on Mount Sion is a symbol of their being overcomers, and the whole picture is a foreview of what will come at the end when the Church of Christ has completed its earthly course and has been translated to the heavens and united for all eternity to the Head.
But this 14th chapter has a present application which is very real. The Lamb standing on Mount Sion, surrounded by the Church, immediately prior to the message of the everlasting gospel and the doom of Babylon, pictures the commissioning of all consecrated disciples, of whatever period of the Age, to undertake their life’s work. To some, especially in the early centuries, it was to go out proclaiming the everlasting gospel. To others, in later times, it was to witness against the falsity of great Babylon and warn the faithful against any kind of alliance with, or sympathy for, the apostate systems of men. Still later it was to proclaim the imminent presence of the Son of Man, returning in spiritual glory to gather his saints to himself, and finally it was to witness to the inevitability of Divine judgment upon a guilty world. These early verses of chapter 14, picturing a radiant and joyful company standing on Mount Sion, the royal mountain of Jerusalem, are paralleled by the declaration of Heb.12:22‑23 "Ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven." This is a present achievement and not a future state. We have now come to Mount Sion and we now stand upon it, secure in the knowledge that our Lord will never fail us, and therefore if we maintain our faith we are surely saved. As the same writer shows so plainly in chapter 4:9‑10 "There remaineth therefore a rest to the people of God. For he that is entered into his rest, he also hath ceased from his own works." If we have fully measured up to all our privileges we will have come into the secret place of the Most High and received that God‑given peace which in very truth puts us upon the Mount Sion. We can sing the song which none but the redeemed can sing; we have come into a world apart from this present world, a condition of existence in which old things are passed away and all things are become new.
This Mount Sion, then, is the state of perfect peace and confidence into which all of the consecrated should pass when they accept the leadership of Jesus in their hearts and lives. No matter what may be our position in the everyday world, no matter how hard the circumstances or how trying our environment, no matter how near the world, the flesh, and the devil, and how far away those Divine ideals toward which we seek to approach, we can all the time be on Mount Sion singing the new song and rejoicing in the constant spiritual presence of our Lord with each. Even although all this is a matter of the heart and mind it is no less real. It is this standing on Mount Sion in company with each other and the Lamb that is steadily taking us more and more out of accord with the things of this world and bringing us more and more into harmony with the things of the spirit. "We all...beholding as in a glass (mirror) the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image." 2 Cor.3:18)
Of these five glimpses of Jesus and his work at his First Advent and during this Age on behalf of his Church, surely none is more appealing and soul‑inspiring than this one which tells us what is to be the glorious outcome of it all. "In their mouth was found no guile: for they are without fault." (v.5) That is the intent and purpose of this Christian Age, to develop and perfect a company devoted to God and his purposes, and of whom it will be declared, when that development is completed, that "they are without fault." (v.5)
Glorious, not only for themselves, but for all the world, for if God can so work upon the hearts of these weak and imperfect creatures to render them without fault before his glorious majesty in the courts of heaven, He can surely do the same with all the sons of men "whomsoever will," in the coming Millennial Day upon earth. If Jesus can so work on the hearts of these few during the Christian Age, surely He can do the same for others in the next Age. The work of the Good Shepherd with the Church now is an earnest of what He will do with the world later on. The High Priest standing now in the midst of the seven lampstands ministering to his beloved, will come forth with them in the blazing glory of meridian sunlight to extend the blessings of his loving care and shepherd rule to all the nations.
Something of that is what is forthshown in the remaining five visions, all of which picture in vivid symbol the varied factors contained in that sequence of events which together make up what is implied by the fulfilment of his promise "I will come again," the Second Advent.
To be continued