Series: Authority Redeemed
As we wrap up our series on authority, we see that the end to which our world is heading is not a world without authority, but a world in which God reigns. And that is good news.
Today we are ending our series of sermons on authority, and so we are heading to the end of The story, the end of the Bible. We began in Genesis 1, the first chapter of the Bible, and today we end in Revelation 22, the last chapter of the Bible, at the end of the vision an angel gives John, the author of the book of Revelation, of the heavenly Jerusalem, which will come down out of heaven after Jesus returns, and everything arrives at its final, eternal state. We’re in the part of the Bible’s story we call “consummation,” which follows creation, fall, and redemption. In creation we saw that God had absolute authority and created humanity with authority as His image. In the fall we saw that we abuse and abdicate the authority God has given us. In redemption, we saw Christ redeems authority first by what He did for us in His life, death, and resurrection, and then by what He does in us by making us like Himself. Then we saw He gathers us into churches led by elders where we exercise the keys of His kingdom to declare the terms of entry into His kingdom and to admit or remove people from the church based on their response. The elders who lead those churches are there to lead us to our heavenly home, and this week we now get an image of that heavenly home, our final destination, where everything is made right. And what marks that final destination, the end of the story, is not an utter lack of authority. Instead, we see in Revelation 22 that God will reign forever, and that’s a good thing, because we will flourish under Him, we will worship Him, and we will reign with Him.
We will flourish under Him
Where our passage begins, the angel shows John the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. So we are probably to imagine something like Venice, where the streets are rivers, and this river is not just some half block like Brandywine. This is Broad St. And at the center of the city, the place from which this stream flows, is not City Hall, but a throne, the throne of God and of the Lamb. Note that it is one throne by the way, shared by God and the Lamb, the lamb being God the Son, Jesus Christ, who was slain for us, and then given the name above every name, equal in glory with God the Father. We can’t be sure of details, but it is probably the case that they can both sit on one throne because God the Father is invisible, while God the Son now reigns in human flesh. It is the glorified human body of Jesus now sitting on the throne, through which both the Father and the Son are revealed. Now maybe if you’re familiar with the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, you’re wondering where the Holy Spirit is in all this. He too is invisible, but we’ll see next week when we get back into John that the sign of His presence is living water, and what do we find proceeding from the throne of the Father and the Son, just as the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son? The water of life.
The imagery here both takes us back and takes us beyond the garden of Eden, humanity’s first home. In Genesis 2:10 we read that a river flowed out of Eden to water the garden. Now the river is back, but we have gone from a garden to a city. In Genesis 2:9 we read that in the garden of Eden, God made to spring up every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, and that in the midst of the garden were two trees: The tree of life, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Now we read again of the tree of life in verse 2, but not of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. In Genesis 2, the tree of life was held out on the condition that humanity passed the test presented by the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When we failed the test, we were expelled from the garden, so that we would not eat from the tree of life and live forever.
Now, however, the Lamb has passed the test for us, and we are no longer in the period of testing. Now we enjoy the blessing He won for us and are free to eat from the tree of life, and so live forever. In verse 2 we read that the leaves of the tree of life are for the healing of the nations. In the ancient world it was known that the leaves of some trees had medicinal properties, and you can still find healing today from the leaves of an aloe plant after a bad sunburn. In the garden of Eden, there was nothing to heal, but now, after thousands upon thousands of years of pain, the tree of life will not only supply eternal life; it will heal all the pain inflicted upon the nations in this life. I can’t help but think about the people of Ukraine as I say this, what pain they are going through right now under the attacks of Russia. We grieve this because we know it’s not the way it’s supposed to be; it’s a result of Vladimir Putin’s heinous abuse of his authority. But in this city, when God and the Lamb are on the throne, every Ukrainian who endures in faith in the Lamb will be healed.
No longer will there be anything accursed, verse 3 says. The garden of Eden had nothing accursed in it when it was created, but then something accursed entered: The serpent, who deceived the woman and the man, and who then brought God’s curse upon himself, them, and all their children. Now all possibility of curse is removed. The lamb was already slain to bear the curse, the serpent has been thrown into the lake of fire. You see, the garden of Eden was very good; God called it such. But it was not yet perfected. It was a state of blessing; everything flourished under God’s loving rule. But it was not a state of irreversible blessing. The stream of water in it gave life, but not eternal life. The tree of life was there, but so was the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. There was nothing accursed in it, but something accursed could enter. Creation was good, but it was not consummated. In the end, however, when the heavenly city comes down, we will flourish forever. The blessings will be irreversible. That’s what we need, right? Even the best moments of this life are tainted by the knowledge that they can be taken away in a moment. But these blessings will never be taken away.
And at the center of it all will be the throne of God and of the Lamb. God will reign forever, and do you see what this is saying? That’s good news! The big problem in our lives, what’s wrong with the world, is not that there is authority over us. The problem is that we have rejected God’s loving authority, and instead of becoming free, have become enslaved to stuff and sin, so that now although God is still properly in authority over us, we resist His authority. The solution to that, then, the ultimate redemption of it, will not be a world with no God. It will be a world with no sin. It will be a world where His reign is consummated, and we will flourish under that reign, with Him in authority over us forever. He will be on the throne, and we will love that, because from His throne will flow waters of life, waters that water the tree of life, with leaves of healing for all our wounds, and no possibility of curse ever again. We’ll finally stop trying to be God, and will instead worship Him as God.
We will worship Him
So verse 3 continues: And His servants will worship Him. They will see His face, and His name will be on their foreheads. Notice first what we are still called: His servants. We’re going to see in a moment that we will reign with Him, but we always do so as His servants. Let’s go back to the Garden of Eden again: The first task of the man, I’ve mentioned it almost every week in this series of sermons, was to work and keep the garden of Eden. Those same words are then used to describe the work of priests in the temple: To work in the temple and to keep it clean from anything accursed. They were said to be set aside for service to God. When God the Son became human in Jesus Christ, He took on the form of a servant. And so we, even when fully redeemed, will still be His servants.
But the service we will perform will be purified. To go back to the priests, when we read that they were to work and keep the temple, the work they were to do was the work of worship, which they did by offering the sacrifices, performing the cleansing rituals, lighting the incense and the lampstand, preparing the showbread, and so forth. And because they did this work, they were exempted from other kinds of work: Planting, plowing, harvesting, etc. The rest of Israel did that work, and then they were to use the proceeds they made from that work to fund the work of the temple and support the priests. The average Israelite was also to take a day off each week from their work to join in the activity of worship, a day called the Sabbath. The Sabbath was not designed as a day of inactivity; it was a day where Israelites were to rest from their ordinary labors to engage in the activity of worship. That was meant to be restful. In a sense, then, you could say that even the work of the priests was a kind of sabbath rest. Their work wasn’t working the fields by the sweat of their brow; it was the work of worship, the work that for the rest of Israel, was to occupy their day of rest.
Now maybe you think worship doesn’t sound very restful, but don’t we find our best rest in doing what we love? Most of us don’t want to finish work just so we can go to bed, nice as that is. Many of us want to finish work so we can read that book we’re into, or watch that TV show we love, or go on that vacation, or spend time with that person. It feels like rest to do those things, even though many of them involve our activity. The idea of the sabbath, then, is that if you loved God like you loved those things, it would feel like rest to worship Him, even though it involves some activity on our part. So what are we getting a picture of in Revelation 22 then? We’re getting a picture of a temple once again: Remember that the garden of Eden was the first temple and we have already noted the various connections between it and this passage. In the temple building, there were visions in the Old Testament of a river of water streaming out from it, and the sanctuary was depicted as the throne room of God. Now we come to the city of Revelation 22 and what do we have? The garden of Eden consummated, the throne of God and of the Lamb in the midst of it, and water flowing out. We have God’s people described as His servants, His priests, and what activity are they engaged in? Worship.
And the worship in which they are engaged is simpler even than the worship the priests of the Old Testament engaged in. Now there is no sacrifice to prepare any longer; the Lamb has already been offered! Now we won’t even need to find a building, because the whole earth will be the temple of God. Look at verse 5: It says we won’t need the furniture of the temple, the lampstand, to give light, nor even will we need the original lampstand of the first temple, the Sun, because the glory of God Himself will be the light. And then we won’t have sin dragging our love for God down, or anything accursed competing for that love. So worshiping Him forever will feel like rest. We will see His face even, verse 4 says! We can’t be certain what that means, but most likely it means we will see the face of Jesus, and in it we will see the glory of God fully revealed.
There is so much about God we don’t get now, and so much about Him that we even get wrong. But in that day we will see Him as He is. All our doubts and fears will be gone. As one of the children’s books I read to my son says, “We will see God…and just enjoy being with God.” No more work to be done, no more deadlines to hit, no more performance reviews, just beholding the face of God and enjoying Him forever. Part of the reason we resist God’s authority now is because we don’t see Him for who He is; we don’t see how glorious and good He is, and so we think there might be something better than Him for us to behold, for us to work for, for us to live under the authority of. But in this day we will see Him as He is, and will find His reign, His authority even, to be good and glorious. To worship Him will be the desire of our hearts, our true rest, our everlasting joy. Sometimes people hear this picture of heaven and think, “That sounds boring. A church service that never ends? Come on, is that really it?” and I sympathize with that on some level, but can you see that reveals a problem with us, not a problem with heaven, or with God?
There is such infinite glory in Him that eternity will not be enough time for us to plumb the depths of it. Have you ever really loved anything, really been enamored by it? Maybe it’s a painting, a song, a view at some scenic destination, a person even. Do you really say, “Well; I don’t want to do this for very long. It’s gonna get boring in a hurry.” No; you say, “I want more! I don’t want to leave! There’s more to be enjoyed here, more to see, more to experience.” Eventually, of course, even these things will become boring, but that’s because they are finite! And maybe you’d have to go eat something or go sleep. But here we’re talking about the infinite God, in bodies that do not need food or sleep any longer, with love that has been reordered so that He is now the ultimate object of our affection, and our vision of Him is no longer obscured by anything else. How could worshiping Him then be boring? It can’t be. It won’t be. And you can start training for it now. That’s what you do when you rest from your ordinary labors and come to church. That’s what you do when you rest from your ordinary labors, open your Bible, and just behold by faith the glory of God as it is revealed there, and respond with prayer and praise. And if that all still sounds boring to you, pop the hood on that. What doesn’t sound boring to you? And why do you love those things so much? Why do you think they’re better than the God of the Universe and the lamb that was slain for you? They aren’t. Your chief end is not those things; it’s God. He’s the one you were made for, and to behold His face forever is the only path to everlasting joy. Turn from lesser things, put your faith in the Lamb that was slain for you, and begin to behold His face now by faith, so that one day you might behold it forever by sight. And then, as His servants who worship Him, we will also reign with Him.
We will reign with Him
This is where our text ends, and where John’s vision of the new heaven and new earth ends. “They will reign forever and ever.” Does that surprise you? The throne is the throne of God and of the Lamb, not of us, right? We are His servants, and we worship Him, right? How then, can we be said to reign? One more time in this series, let’s go back to Genesis 1. Remember where we began our series? We began with God’s absolute authority, and then saw that He also gives us authority as His images. He tells us to be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the earth. That’s a dominion we then forfeited by abusing and abdicating our authority. What do we have here, then? We have that dominion consummated. Not only does God reign over us forever, but we reign with Him over the earth.
That reign entails at least four categories of things over which we will reign: Stuff, sin, wicked angels, and wicked people. Stuff is the easiest one to see from Genesis 1: It’s the stuff of the world, the things God made, that so often reign over us in this life. We will no longer feel any pull to worship and serve money, phones, substances, possessions, or anything else on this earth. To what extent those things will still exist in the new earth, I don’t think any of us can know, but this we can know: They will not control us any longer. We’ll be truly free. And similarly, we will reign over our sinful passions, in an even greater way than we reign over them now when we become Christians. Every human is born under the dominion of sin. When you are born again and come to faith in Christ, God switches the dominion: Sin is still around, but now you have dominion over it, it doesn’t have dominion over you. So when a sinful passion arises in you, you can say no to it. But in this day, that reign will be consummated in that the sinful passions will be entirely gone. There will be nothing accursed there. You won’t be able to sin, because you will have no desire to do so. Your reign over sin will be absolute.
And because your reign over sin will be absolute, your reign over those who have given themselves over to sin will also be absolute. That reign will be primarily exercised in the act of judgment. Listen to these words from 1 Corinthians 6:2-3 – “Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world?…Do you not know that you are to judge angels?” Now Scripture is clear throughout that God is the only one who ultimately judges sin in Christ, but these verses from 1 Corinthians also teach that in some way we will participate in that judgment without going into detail about how we will do so. Putting these passages together, though, it seems we will willingly consent to the judgment of Christ and join Him in condemning those angels and people who persisted in their rebellion against Him. First and foremost, this means consenting to the judgment of Satan, the leader of the fallen angels. But then it does also mean consenting, as 1 Corinthians puts it, to His judgment of the world and the angels. That is not to say we will enjoy it; Scripture tells us that even God does not delight in the death of the wicked. It will be something like how many of us felt when Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers were convicted: We wish the crime had never happened in the first place, we feel some measure of compassion for those who are now facing life in prison or worse, and yet we rejoice that justice has been done, and rightly praise the judge for rendering it in this case. There is even a very real sense in which we can say that we who were not guilty in this case reigned over the murderers by consigning them a prison cell, one in which they sit now, while we live free. So also we will reign forever and ever over those angels and people who are consigned to the eternal prison cell of hell.
The difference in this case, aside from the duration, severity, and perfect justice of the sentence, will be that those who reign will be no less worthy in themselves of the condemnation that those they reign over will receive. Every human who will reign in that day will be from the same fallen stock as those who will be condemned in that day. Both will have been guilty of sins worthy of condemnation. There will be only one in that day who is ultimately not guilty: The Lamb on the throne. So how is it that any will reign with Him? It can only be because that Lamb was first slain for their sins, so that they could be washed clean in His blood, and made righteous by His righteousness. And because that day of judgment has not yet come, there is still time for you to be cleansed of your sins by the blood of the Lamb. Believe in Him today, and you will be cleansed. Believe in Him today, and you will reign with Him forever.
That’s the first thing to do with this vision today. But then, what else might we do with it? A vision like this often scares non-Christians, but not for the reasons it should. It should scare you if you aren’t a Christian because it means a judgment day is coming, and there is no way for you to be declared righteous on it unless you are washed in the blood of the Lamb. So let it scare you closer to Jesus. Unfortunately, what it sometimes does instead is scare people away from Jesus. Non-Christians hear that Christians will reign forever and they say, “See; that’s the problem with you Christians. You want to reign over us and force us to live like you do. You’re just after power.” Here’s why that actually shouldn’t scare you: Because this vision is not presented to Christians as something they achieve by forcing everyone else to submit to them. This vision is presented to Christians as something they receive if and only if they take up their cross in this life and suffer with Christ in a life of service to God and others. Christians, here’s what we do with this now: We say, “Since this is what is coming for me, I don’t need to get power over the world now. I need to follow Jesus to the end, take up my cross, and love not my life even unto death, so that in the proper time He may exalt me.” We’re supposed to be the ones who are willing to be killed for our faith because we have this hope, not those who kill others to get power over them. It’s those who seek power in this life who will have their reward in this life, not the next. We shouldn’t be trying to reign over the world now; we should be trying to win the world, because we once were the world, and we know now that there is hope for the world in the Lamb who was slain for the sins of the world. Let’s hold out this hope to them and bear witness to it by our willingness to suffer in the name of Jesus.
So this vision should empower us to not abuse our authority; it should also empower us not to abdicate it. Since we know the day is coming when we will have absolute dominion over stuff, let’s no longer worship and serve stuff now. Let’s use the stuff of this life: money, possessions, substances, in the worship and service of God. Let’s put sin to death; it’s fighting a losing battle. The Lamb has already overcome, and in Him we too shall overcome. That sin you feel like you can’t shake free from? One day you will be free from it. And even the judgment we will one day exercise we must not abdicate now. Only now we do not judge the world or the angels. Instead, we judge those inside the church. That’s why 1 Corinthians 6 mentions our future judgment of the world and angels. Listen again to the surrounding verses, starting in chapter 5 verse 12: “Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. Purge the evil person from among you. When one of you has a grievance against another, does he dare go to law before the unrighteous instead of the saints? Or do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world is to be judged by you, are you incompetent to try trivial cases? Do you not know that we are to judge angels? How much more, then, matters pertaining to this life!” Coming full circle, this is why we’re moving toward Congregationalism. Because in Revelation 22, it’s not just the elders who will judge the world; it’s all God’s servants, all His priests, all His saints! And so Scripture says, if you will judge the world and the angels, how much more ought you to be able to judge sin within the church now?
The consummate state of our world, its ultimate end, is not a world with no authority. It’s not a world where each individual is his or her own authority. It’s a world in which God reigns with absolute authority, and where those who reign with Him are not those who acquired the most power in this life, but those who were made righteous by the only truly righteous one, the Lamb that was slain for their sins, and who suffered with Him. Come to Him today, endure with Him to the end, even through suffering, and you will reign with Him forever. Come to Him today, and begin exercising dominion over your stuff and your sin. Come to Him today, and begin exercising the just judgment within the church that He has given us to exercise in this life. Come to Him today, and one day you will rest in the worship of Him forever. And you will flourish.