The Beginning and the End of All Things
December 20, 2020 Speaker: Jeff Breeding Series: Visions of the Reigning King: Jesus Christ as Portrayed in Revelation (Advent 2020)
Passage: Revelation 22:12–17
The Beginning and the End of All Things
Advent is a time for treasuring Jesus Christ. If you find yourself asking the question, “Why does the church do this every year – sing the same carols, read the same passages” – then this is your answer. Advent is for treasuring Jesus Christ. That’s not to say that the rest of the year, we focus on other things. There is no other thing, no one else to treasure. Jesus Christ is the sum of Christianity, and to treasure him is the heartbeat of everything we do as a church. And Advent, in a particular way, is set aside as a means of amplifying this purpose – to treasure the unthinkable thought that God would give his Son for us and for our salvation.
And so, the church always experiences Advent from two perspectives. From the first perspective, we are the church in celebration. We celebrate that God has fulfilled his promises in the coming of Jesus Christ. This is why we sing “Joy to the Word” – because we rejoice that all of God’s promises find their Yes and Amen in Christ.
But there is a second perspective, and it’s the one we’ve been focused on this year. At Advent, we are the church in celebration, but we are also the church in waiting. We anticipate the return of Christ, when God’s promises will be consummated and the new creation will come in all of its fullness. This is why we also sing “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” We long for Immanuel to come again. We are awaiting his return.
And it is this second perspective that draws our attention this morning. As we conclude our Advent season, I’d like us to do so from the perspective of the church in waiting. Here’s why. Waiting is hard. And I don’t mean hard in that it simply tries our patience. That’s true, but that’s not precisely what I mean. Waiting is hard because it wears down our resolve. Waiting pushes us to the limit of our ability to bear up, to endure, to persevere.
And so, as the church in waiting, this is always the question facing us. Where do we find the strength of faith to continue waiting for the Lord’s return? What encouragement is there for church as we wait? And our text this morning in Revelation 22 answers that question. It is fitting that this final Sunday of Advent brings us to this final chapter of Scripture. Here in these few verses, we see encouragement for the church in waiting. Specifically, John’s closing vision gives us three realities that sustain the church’s waiting, three encouragements that can bear us up until the final day.
So, if you’ve come to church this morning a bit weary with the cost, if you’ve come this morning lacking Christmas cheer, if you’ve come wondering whether you’ll make it to the end, then God’s Word has good news for you, brothers and sisters. Let’s consider these encouragements together, and let’s remember how the Lord gives us what we need to remain faithful.
The Confidence of Christ’s Return
The first encouragement comes in vv12-13, and it is really the encouragement that sustains all the others. Here we see the Confidence of Christ’s Return. These verses are part of the epilogue to the book of Revelation. The epilogue begins in v6 and runs to the end, and there is this one main theme running through the entire section – Jesus is returning. That’s not conjecture, brothers and sisters. John presents this as a fact – Jesus is returning again.
In fact, it’s not even John who is pressing this truth home to us. It’s the Lord Jesus himself. Notice the Lord’s words in v12 – “Behold, I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done.” The first thing that should jump out to you is that word soon. “I am coming soon,” Jesus says. The Lord repeats this word three times in the epilogue – v7, “I am coming soon”; v12, “I am coming soon”; and v20, “I am coming soon.” So here at the end of Scripture, this is what the Lord himself wants the church to hear – the blessed good news that he is coming soon. And so, we pray, “Amen, Come Lord Jesus.”
But even so, there are some features of Christ’s soon-return that we ought to understand. This is where we find the encouragement, so let’s dig a little deeper in v12. First of all, we should emphasize that Christ’s return is near. Again, consider that word soon. What does Jesus mean by soon? Is he speaking in mere standards of time – the equivalent of “I’ll be right back”? That’s how some people take Jesus’ words, and that’s also why some people point to these verses as proof that the early church misunderstood the return of Christ. People will point to Revelation 22 and say, “See, the church was wrong. They thought Christ’s return would be soon, but that was 2,000 years ago.” So, is that what Jesus means by soon? Is he speaking in mere units of time?
Not exactly. The sense here has more to do with suddenness, rather than mere time. Jesus is coming back suddenly or quickly. Remember how Jesus described his return in the Gospels. He is coming at a time you will not expect, Matthew 24. No one knows the day or the hour – not even the Son, only the Father, Mark 13. That’s the sense here. It’s the idea of suddenness that catches you off guard if you are not prepared.
And in that sense, the return of Christ is near. In fact, it’s always near. Follow the logic. If Christ’s return is sudden, then it is always near, for you never when it will occur. It could be today or tonight or next week or next century. We do not know the time, and that is precisely why it is always near. In redemptive history, the one thing that remains is the return of Christ. It is near, in other words, and that should encourage us to remain faithful. Our Lord returns soon.
Along with nearness, we should also remember that Christ’s return is necessary. Look at the second part of v12. Jesus says, I am “bringing my recompense with me, to repay each one for what he has done.” This is a reference to the final judgment that we considered last week. That word recompense means to recognize the moral quality of an action, either with reward or with punishment. So, when Christ returns, those who have trusted in the gospel will be rewarded with eternal life. That is, Christ will give them the fullness of their inheritance in the gospel. But those who have rejected Christ will receive the just punishment for their sin. Christ returns to judge the living and the dead.
But the key point here is that this recompense must occur. As we saw last week, the final judgment is part of Christ’s saving work. And therefore, the return of Christ is a necessary piece of Jesus’ faithful ministry. He must return – not because he is obligated by something outside of himself. No, Christ must return because his own perfect faithfulness compels him to gather his church to himself.
Think of that powerful moment in John’s Gospel, chapter 14, when Jesus looks at his disciples and says, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” That’s what I mean here by necessary. Christ, compelled by his own faithfulness, will return to finish his ministry, and that includes gathering his people.
And because of that necessity, brothers and sisters, we can have confidence that Christ’s return is certain. In fact, Jesus emphasizes this certainty in v13. Notice how Jesus identifies himself, v13 – “I am the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” This is the name that God used to identify himself in Revelation 1, and now, Jesus claims this name as well. Why can Jesus do this? Because Christ shares fully in the Father’s nature and glory. All that is true of God is true of Christ, for Christ is God in the flesh. The Father and the Son – equal together in glory – and that, brothers and sisters, is the certainty of Christ’s return. How do we know Christ will keep his word and return soon? Because Christ is the Lord of History, determining the beginning from the end. He has the right, as God, to decree what is first and last. Indeed, Christ himself is the beginning and end of all things, and therefore, there is no doubt. When Christ says, “I am coming soon,” he is more than capable of keeping his word, for Christ is the Alpha and Omega.
And ultimately, brothers and sisters, that is our encouragement in these opening verses. Christ’s return is near, it is necessary, and it is certain. There is no doubt, and we should have confidence about that fact. And that confidence produces in us the faithfulness we need. You may have heard before the phrase living in light of the end – we’ve used it from this pulpit. That’s what I’m getting at here. When we keep the return of Christ in view, faithfulness takes root in our hearts. When we live in the light of the absolutely certain last day, we seek to be prepared. We take seriously the call to holiness. We aim to love God and love our neighbor as ourselves. We are more inclined to let the things of this world pass by. We’re on the road of faithfulness, in other words. How? Because the sure and certain return of Christ produces in his people confidence that leads to faithfulness.
The Promise of Christ’s Blessing
So, that is the first encouragement from this passage – the confidence of Christ’s return. The second encouragement builds on this. From vv14-15, we see the Promise of Christ’s Blessing. There are seven beatitudes in the book of Revelation – seven statements of blessing. V14 is the seventh and final, and it is a nearly unimaginable promise for God’s people. Notice again what the text says, v14 – “Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates.” Now, right from the start, we should note that this blessing is addressed to Christ’s people, the saints. All through Revelation, the saints are clothed in white robes, signifying their position before the Living God. So, this blessing is addressed to believers, to the church of the Lord Jesus Christ.
And this blessing, brothers and sisters, is staggering. John uses two images to describe this blessing. The first is that believers have access to the tree of life. If you look back earlier in the chapter, v2, you’ll see that the tree of life stands in the middle of the City of God. When God’s people are brought in to the heavenly city, they will be able to eat from the tree of life. It’s an image of salvation. Think of what happened to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. God drove them from the Garden so that they would not eat from the tree of life, Genesis 3.22. That was the devastation of sin – it cut humanity off from life, from the very presence of God.
But now, through the victory of Jesus Christ, God’s people are brought again to eat from the tree of life. Instead of being exiled from God’s presence, God’s people are brought in to enjoy life. It’s the blessing of salvation, and it’s pictured here in Revelation 22 as God’s people have the right to the tree of life.
And John’s second image picks up on this same theme of salvation. Notice in 14 that the saints enter the city by the gates. Now, what city is John talking about? It’s the City of God, the New Jerusalem. If you look back to chapter 21, you’ll see that the climax of Revelation is actually not the overthrow of Babylon, the wicked city of this world. No, the climax of Revelation is the descent of the New Jerusalem, the City of God. Babylon is overthrown in order to make way for the heavenly city.
And as that New Jerusalem comes down from heaven, we hear in Revelation 21 the climax of redemption. Listen to what ch21 says about this city – “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” Brothers and Sisters, that is the climax of salvation – we get to be with God, dwelling forever in his presence. Again, this takes us back to Eden, doesn’t it? The searing pain of Adam’s sin was exile from God’s presence. Eden was paradise because God was there, walking with his people as a man walks with his friend. But because of Adam’s sin, humanity lost that blessing. God drove Adam and Eve from the Garden as a picture of the separation sin created between man and God.
But now, through the second Adam – the Lord Jesus Christ – that separation has been overcome. Sin has been dealt with, and the exile of God’s people is over. Through Christ, God’s people are brought into the presence of God once more.
Understand, brothers and sisters, this is the goal of salvation. All of redemption leads to this point. Why are our sins forgiven? So that we can dwell with God. Why are justified by faith in Christ? So that we can come into God’s presence. Why are we sanctified in holiness? So that we can share in the purity of God’s dwelling. Every aspect of salvation, every link in that blessed chain of redemption is driving us to this point, Revelation 22 – we enter the city by the gates. We don’t sneak in like thieves. No, we enter the city like sons and daughters of God. The great blessing for every Christian is the promise that we will dwell with God forever in his presence. eTo say it another way, the greatest blessing of the gospel is that we get God forever.
Now, there is one more aspect to this blessing that we ought to consider. But before we do, we need to acknowledge that there is another side to salvation’s blessing. As incredible as v14 is, v15 is equally as sobering. Notice the warning, v15 – “Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and the sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” If the heavenly city pictures the presence of God, then outside the city is the place of judgment, the place of darkness, with weeping and gnashing of teeth. Those who reject the gospel of Christ remain outside the city, cut off from God’s presence, where they receive the just judgment for sin. The list in v15 is a description of the works of the flesh. It reads like Paul’s list in Galatians 5, doesn’t it? These are the things that define those who belong to the world. But it’s that last phrase in v15 that should get our attention. The last phrase is a very clear description of unbelievers – they are those who love and practice falsehood. The order of that phrase is significant. Do you see it? The order is love that leads to practice. Out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth speaks and the hands act.
That is one of the great tragedies of sin. Not only does sin leads us to act in ways that are opposed to God, sin also causes us to love the things opposed to God. In fact, the loving leads to the acting. By nature, we love the darkness, and therefore, we practice darkness. So, think about v15. Those who are outside the city are there because they prefer the darkness to God. They love falsehood. This is one reason why God’s eternal judgment is just – because in leaving unbelievers outside the city, God is giving them both what they deserve and, tragically, what they prefer.
So, that raises the big question, and this ties together the blessing of v14 with the warning of v15. What is the difference between these two groups of people? Those who enter the city and those who remain outside – what’s the difference? Why do some go in, while some continue to love the darkness?
Some people will say the difference is that those who enter the city simply made the better choice. They saw all the facts, they weighed the evidence rightly, and they decided to enter. But that can’t be right. If that were the case, then those in the city would be able to boast in themselves – that they were wiser, more spiritual, more insightful than those outside. But this is God’s city, which means only God gets the praise in his city. So, it can’t be that those inside simply made the better choice.
No, the difference is found back in the first line of v14. Who receives the blessing of salvation? Answer – those who have their robes washed. Washed in what, we ask? Washed in the Lamb’s blood. Revelation 7.13 – “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Brothers and Sisters, that is the difference between those inside and those outside, and it is the difference of grace. By God’s grace, believers are cleansed in the blood of Christ. Believers are made clean and pure and forgiven. And then, clothed in robes of Christ’s blood-bought righteousness, believers receive citizenship in God’s city. We receive the right to eat from the tree of life – not because we deserve eternal life, not because we are worthy, not because we simply made the better choice. No, brothers and sisters, it is union with Christ, rooted in grace and purchased with blood, that enables God’s people to receive the blessing of salvation.
And here’s the connection I want us to see. The promise of this blessing is what sustains faithfulness in the Christian life. Remember, we are not a self-made people. We are a blood-bought people. And therefore, God will not fail to complete the work he has begun through Christ’s blood. The Father will not leave one of his children outside the city because the Father will not allow his Son’s blood to be shed in vain. By his grace, God the Father, through his Spirit, will keep all who belong to the Son.
But how does he do that, you ask? How does God keep those who belong to Christ? God keeps them through the power of this very promise. To say it another way, God keeps a Christian the same way he first calls a Christian – through the gospel. This is the power of the gospel at work in the Christian life. The gospel of Christ not only creates faith through the Spirit’s work. The gospel also sustains the faith it creates. This is why we make it our aim every Lord’s Day to remember the gospel together. This is foundational to our view of the Christian life. It is through the gospel – explained in the preaching of God’s Word, celebrated in the singing of God’s people, and remembered in the ordinances of God’s church – it is through the gospel that God keeps us for the final day.
So, hear again this blessed good news, brothers and sisters. We are bound for the heavenly city, and our citizenship is blood-bought. There is a great day coming when we will enter the gates as the sons and daughters of God. That is the promise Christ makes in Revelation 22, and through the power of this very promise, God is working to hold us fast for that day.
The Call of Christ’s Gospel
That the second encouragement we see in this text – the promise of Christ’s blessing. The final encouragement comes in vv16-17, where we see the Call of Christ’s Gospel. In v16, Christ once again declares his identity to the church, and again, he does so as a means of confirming his word. Notice v16 – “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to testify to you about these things for the churches. I am the root and descendant of David, the bright morning star.” This is a declaration of kingship. Jesus is the Messiah, the greater Son of David, the King who will rise to defeat God’s enemies. These titles stretch back to the OT, and Jesus uses them here to confirm his word to his church. Please don’t miss that connection. Jesus says, “I have sent this message to the churches,” and then Jesus declares, “I am the King over God’s kingdom. I am the Messiah.” The two statements go together. Since Jesus is the Christ, we have confidence that his word will prove true. History is not careening out of control. History belongs to Christ, and through his word, he has revealed to the church the end of all things.
Now, we’ve seen that connection before in our series, but there is a new element introduced in v17. Since Christ’s word is true, what should the church do as we wait for Christ’s return? V17 – “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.” You’ll notice there are three calls in v17. Three times, we hear the invitation, “Come.” I take all three calls together as summarizing the mission of the church. In other words, v17 is not the church’s prayer for Christ to return – that comes later, v20. Rather, v17 is a picture of our mission. What do we do as we await the return of the Lord Jesus Christ? We proclaim the gospel. We call sinners to repentance. We declare that there is Living Water for any and all who are spiritually thirsty, and then, as the Bride of Christ, we compel and call sinners to come.
So, with that interpretation in view, I want to briefly highlight two points from v17 that should encourage our faithfulness. First of all, notice that the church does not undertake this mission alone. Look again at the first line – “the Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’” That is a remarkable picture of the Holy Spirit empowering the church – the Bride of Christ – to proclaim the gospel. It’s actually a very moving image of the church’s mission. As the Bride of Christ, we are called to go out to the spiritually thirsty of this world, and we are empowered to say, “We know the One who will quench your thirst. We know him because he first loved us, and he stands ready to receive you as well. So, come. Come to the living water, the Lord Jesus, and drink.” It is a picture of gospel mission, and it is a mission that the Spirit himself empowers us to fulfill.
The second point we should note is that grace should mark the church’s proclamation. Look at the last line – “let the one who desires take the water of life without price.” That is an echo of Isaiah 55, where God calls his people to come and feast in his presence, even though they have no money to buy provisions. Even without money, God calls his people to come – eat, drink, and feast on the grace of God. And that’s the church’s emphasis, brothers and sisters. As we witness to Christ, what’s the note we keep singing in our song? What’s the truth we put forward time and time again? It is the grace of God in the gospel. The unmerited, undeserved, unfathomable grace of God in Christ – that’s the heartbeat of our proclamation. Over and over, with great joy in our voice and fervent prayer in our hearts, we tell the world, “God has paid the price in his Son, Jesus Christ. You cannot earn this living water. You cannot buy salvation. The only qualification is that you know you are thirsty. There is grace for the thirsty.” Before people know us for anything else, brothers and sisters, they should know us as people who proclaim and celebrate and magnify the grace of God in Christ.
And so, brothers and sisters, this is our final takeaway for Advent. Each week, we’ve focused on one application point. Week 1 – courage. Week 2 – worship. Week 3 – hold to the Scriptures. And this final week – make disciples, particularly disciples who love and rejoice in the grace of God. When we give ourselves to that gospel mission, we can trust that we have been faithful to our Lord. He has been faithful to us – to save us from our sins. He will be faithful to us – when he returns to gather his church to the heavenly city. And therefore, as we wait, we are called to be faithful to him – proclaiming the gospel of his grace, making disciples, and trusting that God will not fail to save his redeemed from every tribe, tongue, and nation.
Christ has come, brothers and sisters, and he is coming again. That is the good news of Advent. May God make us faithful to the mission, even as we await our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.