"The Great White Throne"
(Delivered Sunday, September 3, 2000 at Bethany Bible Church. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James version.)
I can't read this morning's passage without a mix of personal emotions. At one point in my life, the event that this passage describes filled me with unspeakable dread and despair, because I believed it was my own personal destiny.
When I was sixteen years old, I had a definite sense of guilt before God for my sins. I knew that I was a sinner, separated from God; and I knew that I was destined for eternal judgment. And yet -- amazing when I think about it today -- at first, I wasn't really afraid of that destiny. I had made up my mind early on that I would march into hell proudly, with my head held high -- taking my eternal punishment 'like a man', because it was what I deserved.
Through a series of events, however, the Holy Spirit convicted me of the dreadful finality of that horrible judgment. The more I thought about what lay ahead for me, the more it became a terror to me; and I eventually came to believe that I would, in no way, 'march into hell with my head held high'. Instead, I became filled with despair because of my destiny before the almighty God. It spoiled whatever pleasures I had in the daytime; and it robbed me of my sleep at night. At one point, I couldn't decide if it was better to live out my life in the fear of that dreadful day of Judgment; or perhaps die as a young man and get it over with sooner.
I can praise God today, though, that He had mercy on me while I was in this awful state of mind. He brought the news to me that there was a way out. On August 16, 1973 -- for a reason I can't explain today in any way except for the grace of God -- I was watching a Billy Graham crusade on television. I heard Dr. Graham tell about how a man or woman could be declared 'righteous' in God's eyes through faith in His Son Jesus Christ. I heard that Jesus took all the guilt of our sins on Himself; and that He paid for the guilt of our sins for us on His Cross. I heard that, because of what Jesus did, I could stand before God 'not guilty' -- just as if I'd never sinned at all.
I wish I could express to you what good news that was to me. That very night, I prayed and trusted Jesus Christ as my Savior; and I immediately felt at peace with God. I knew that my sins were paid for by Jesus, that I no longer stood guilty before God, that He loved me, and that I never again needed to fear the terrible prospect of hell. My destiny changed that night from one of judgment before the throne of Jesus Christ, to one of eternal fellowship with Him in heaven.
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Now, I realize that a lot of people would find this morning's passage very distasteful; and I can't help but sympathize with that. I find myself inclined to shrink back from it too. In my opinion, it's the most dreadful passage in the Bible. I don't believe a true child of God could ever find pleasure in reading it -- let alone preaching from it. And I certainly can't imagine how a true follower of Jesus Christ could ever delight in imagining some particular individual that they know suffering what this passage describes. The Bible tells us that the apostle Paul wrote with "weeping" about those who were destined for destruction (Phil. 3:18-19); and I believe that's how we should think about the subject as well -- never with anything even remotely like delight; but always with sorrow and weeping.
But I hope that my own story helps illustrate something of God's purpose in having included this terrible passage in His Bible. Our God is a good and loving God of mercy, who isn't willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance (2 Pet. 3:9). God's word tells us that He so loved us that He sent His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him "should not perish but have everlasting life" (John 3:16). God tells us the unpleasant truth about the final judgment of the wicked so that we might ultimately be saved from it. He shows us the destiny of those who are outside of Christ so that we might trust Christ and be saved from that sorrowful destiny.
And yet, even as I think of the dreadfulness of this passage, I think also of elements of great victory and hope contained in it as well. This passage assures us that God will one day bring about a complete and just end to all sin and all evil. It holds out to us the promise that God will one day bring an end -- once and for all -- to death: that awful consequence of Adam's one sin in the Garden, which has brought so much sorrow upon the human race. And it tells us that God's dreadful judgment for sin has a completion point; and that it will be followed by the creation of a new heaven and a new earth in which no trace of sin, evil and death will ever again be found.
There's no passage in the Bible quite like this one. For those of us who are in Christ, it stretches our emotions from dread and sorrow to glorious hope and victory. As believers, we should bow in humble praise and worship before the God that's described in this passage; and we should faithfully and unhesitatingly proclaim what it says to the world so that others might be saved by His grace.
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The apostle John had been given a vision of a series of future events; and we need to see this passage in the context of those events in order to appreciate it fully. John had been given a vision of the Lord Jesus Christ returning to the earth in power and great glory (19:11-16). He had seen a vision of the whole world of sinful mankind, rallying against the Son of God, under the influence of the devil, in order to make war against Him; and of how this diabolical rebellion was brought to an end in utter failure (19:17-21). He had been given a vision of the devil being bound in chains, imprisoned for a thousand years; and of Jesus Christ reigning upon earth for a glorious thousand years as King of kings and Lord of lords (20:1-7). And he had been given a vision of how, at the end of that thousand year period, the devil would be released to inspire rebellion against King Jesus once again; only to be thrown finally into the lake of fire, and to "be tormented day and night forever and ever" (20:7-10).
It's then that we read this passage. Jesus Christ had returned to earth and has completed His reign upon it. He has cast the enemy of our souls into the lake of fire. He has brought the history of the nations of the earth to a completion; and has conquered all His foes. And now, He takes His place upon the judgment seat; and the final, closing event of this created order at last begins.
Look at this passage with me as we consider, first ...
1. The Judge.
John writes: "Then I saw a great white throne and Him who sat on it, from whose face the earth and the heaven fled away. And there was found no place for them" (v. 11).
Who specifically is it that sits on this throne? John doesn't say. But the Bible suggest to us very strongly that it's none other than the Lord Jesus Himself. Jesus once said, "... The Father judges no one, but has committed all judgment to the Son, that all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father" (John 5:22-23). Peter told the household of Cornelius that Jesus Himself "commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is He who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead" (Acts 10:42). Paul told the people of Athens that God "has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness by the Man whom He has ordained. He has given assurance of this to all by raising Him from the dead" (Acts 17:31).
Many people dismiss Jesus today. Many engage in scholarly efforts to portray Him as a humble religious reformer and teacher -- and nothing more. Others openly mock the idea of a 'Savior from sins'. He's blasphemed in movies and novels. Every year, Time Magazine tries to put forth a new spin on Him -- rarely portraying Him, however, as the Bible has portrayed Him, and as faithful Christians have worshiped Him throughout the centuries.
Yet everyone who says such things about Him must, one day, come to terms with who He really is. Today, He is the Savior from our sins, willing to welcome anyone who turns to Him and save anyone who trusts in Him. Tomorrow, however, He takes His place upon the throne as the Judge of the living and the dead. How we should love and adore Him; but oh, how we should also tremble before Him!
Think of His authority as Judge! John tells us that, in his vision, he sees Him take His seat on a great throne. John's description of these future events began with a vision of the throne of God in heaven (4:2). A throne, of course, automatically implies authority; but in this case, a "great throne" is described. The Bible describes many thrones in heaven; but no other heavenly throne is described as "great" except this one. This stresses the absolute deity of Jesus -- being given "the name which is above every name" (Phil. 2:9) -- as He takes His place as authoritative Judge upon a "great" throne. His word in judgment is the final word.
Think also of His righteousness as Judge! The throne that John sees in his vision is not only a great throne, but is also a great "white" throne. The word John uses means more than simply "white" in the sense of the absence of color. It means "white" in the sense that it is brilliant and gleaming, as if shining with light. Frequently in the Book of Revelation, this dazzling, resplendent "whiteness" is a symbol of purity and holiness. The saints in heavenly glory are often pictured as robed in such dazzling white garments (3:4, 5, 18; 6:11; 7:9, 11), which symbolizes their righteous acts (19:8). Even angelic and heavenly beings are described as clothed in dazzling white (4:4; 9:14). And so, when we read of Jesus' great throne in white, it's a picture of the purity, holiness and righteousness of the judgments that emanate from Jesus' great throne. "Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne", as it says in Psalm 97:2.
Finally, think of His dreadfulness as Judge! Here, we're told that it was from His face that the earth and heaven "fled away". The created order is personified in John's vision; and presented as if it cannot stand before Jesus on His throne, but must shrink back in terror before Him "who dwells in unapproachable light" (1 Tim. 6:16). It almost presents the heavens and the earth as scurrying throughout the universe, seeking a place to hide. "And there was found no place for them."
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Have you ever had to stand before an authority figure, after having done wrong, and give an account of your actions? It doesn't matter whether it's as serious a matter as being tried in a criminal court, or as minor as being called into the principle's office -- it's still dreadful. You'd gladly get out of it, if you only could.
Having to give an account of yourself before a mere human authority can be dreadful enough; but what can possibly be compared with having to stand before the holy and righteous, dreadfully transcendent, authoritative, divine Judge of all the earth -- and after having rebelliously sinned against Him and having cast scorn on His offer of forgiveness?!! This reminds us of that dreadful picture at the end of Revelation 6;
Not even the heavens nor the earth will be able to stand before this Judge. How much less sinful man on the day of judgment! Where will even the great and mighty men and women of the earth go to hide from Him, when not even the heavens and earth can find a place to hide?!!
Second, look with me at ...
2. The Judged.
John goes on to say, "And I saw the dead, small and great, standing before God" (v. 12a).
Who are these that are called "the dead"? If you look back to verses 4-6, you read this:
This speaks of the resurrection of those who will be raised from the dead to reign with Jesus at the time of His return. But apparently, not all will be raised from death at that time. John goes on to say,
The Bible tells us that there will be a resurrection of the saints at the time of Jesus' return. Those believers will live and reign with Him for a thousand years. But not everyone will be raised at that time. "The rest of the dead", as the Bible tells us, won't be raised until the thousand years are completed; and then, only to face the "second death". Those who partake of the first resurrection have no need to fear the second death; but those who are raised after the thousand years are completed must then face this dreadful second death. This group raised at the second resurrection is "the dead" to which John refers -- the "rest of the dead" who are resurrected to stand before the great white throne and face final judgment.
Notice how they're described as "standing". This is a way stating that they are resurrected. The "dead" are made to "stand" alive again before the throne of God. And the tense of the verb that John uses (the perfect tense) speaks of a dramatic finality to it all. It's as if John is saying that they've at last been brought to the dreaded point at which they now must stand once and for all before the judgment seat of God!
And notice also how they're made to stand -- on equal footing. No one will be able to boast in any special privilege or honor on that day, because John saw all social classes of the dead -- small and great -- standing before the throne of God.
And notice finally to what extent they're made to stand! In the next verse, John says, "The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them" (v. 13). John was given a vision of even those who die at sea -- those whose bodies are consumed away by the marine life, and whose physical particles are carried away miles apart from one another by the water currents, to be mixed and mingled with the sand at the ocean floor -- even these will be resurrected and made to stand in their bodies before the throne of God.
John also sees that "Death and "Hades" must give up the dead that are in them. "Hades" is translated "Hell" in some translations -- but this isn't the best way to translate that word. "Hell" speaks of the place of ultimate judgment. It's equivalent to the lake of fire described later in this passage. But"Hades" is not the same as "hell". In the Bible, Hades refers to a place where the dead abide during the intermediate state between death and ultimate judgment. When Jesus told His parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, He described the rich man as "being in torments in Hades" (Luke 16:23).
"Death" is a state of being; and "Hades" is a place; and both are pictured here as giving up the dead that are in them so that they might stand in judgment and, subsequently, to go to the lake of fire. Not even the seeming finality of Death and Hades will provide a safe place to hide from the judgment seat of God!
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Many people who have rejected God's grace, and who live in rebellion against Him, secretly harbor the hope that, when they die, they will just die; and that nothing more will happen to them. They imagine that, for them, there will be no judgement -- no accounting for their sins. But when they imagine this, they harbor a hope for themselves that is contrary to the testimony of the Holy Spirit -- Who, as the Bible tells us, convicts the world of sin, and of righteousness, and of judgment (John 16:8). Sinful men and women know, deep in their hearts, that there must be a day of accounting and a day of judgment before God.
And this verse tells us that no one will be able to avoid that day. Neither Death, nor Hades, nor even the complete disintegration of the body at the bottom of the sea, will be able to keep God from calling the particles of the body back together, and resurrecting the wicked for trial on the day of His righteous judgment.
Third, look with me at ...
3. The Judgment.
John says, "... and books were opened. And another book was opened, which is the Book of Life. And the dead were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books. The sea gave up the dead who were in it, and Death and Hades delivered up the dead who were in them. And they were judged, each one according to his works" (vv. 12b-13).
God is sovereign and all-knowing. He needs no books and records to go by when He executes His judgment. And yet, here, we find that "books were opened" as a basis of God's judgment. Why does God do this? I believe it's to prove that He's not being arbitrary in His judgment. He can point to the evidence.
Do you remember when the Pharisees had confronted Jesus by throwing a woman in front of Him that had been caught in the act of adultery? They were trying to trap Him, saying, "Moses, in the law, commanded us that such should be stoned. But what do You say?"
Jesus didn't disagree with them. She was, indeed, guilty before the law. But do you remember what He did? He stooped down to the ground and began writing in the dirt. After writing for a while, He rose up and said, "He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her" (John 8:8); and then, He stooped back down and resumed writing. We're not told what He wrote; but whatever it was that He wrote caused the consciences of the Pharisees to be so convicted that, one by one -- beginning with the older and even to the last -- they left and walked away sheepishly. No one argued with Him.
Personally, my theory is that He was writing down the names of their girlfriends. But that's only speculation. Whatever it was that He wrote, it was clearly a record of their actions. None of them could claim to be so sinless as to throw the first stone at the adulteress. The record of their actions testified against them and established their own guilt before God. It will be the same on the great day of judgment. The books will be opened; and the records will testify of the guilt of those who stand before the throne, and of the justness of God's judgment.
Look at what it is that testifies against them: their own works. "They were judged according to their works, by the things which were written in the books." The works that are written in the books stand as the basis of God's judgment.
Jesus once told the Pharisees, "... for every idle word men may speak, they will give an account of it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned" (Matthew 12:36-37). Frankly, on a strictly human level, it's hard to imagine any offense more incidental than a mere idle word. And yet, if men will nevertheless be required to answer for even every idle word, then surely they'll be required to give an account for every offense that's greater than that -- every dirty joke; every hateful and vengeful act; every unfair business deal; every immoral practice done in secret; every blasphemy; every lie; every betrayal of trust; every act of theft; every cruel deed.
Men and women will try to defend themselves before the throne of Jesus. They'll try to make the case that they're really good people down deep inside. But the books will reveal the deeds; and the deeds will reveal what was in the heart. As Jesus said, "A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good things, and an evil man out of the evil treasure brings forth evil things" (Matthew 12:35).
And finally, look at how it is that they will be judged: individually. John says that "they were judged, each one according to his works". They won't be judged collectively. Each man and each woman -- individually -- will be required to give an account of their own works, as those works are recorded in the books.
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Now, someone might object to this by saying, "But I thought we were saved by grace apart from works." And that's true. We're never saved by our works; we're only saved on the basis of God's grace through faith apart from works. But in the case of the final judgment, those whose works condemn them before the throne of God will have already rejected the forgiveness God offers for sin through the Cross of Jesus. God's grace will have been shunned by them; and now, all that will be left with be the testimony of their works. And so, when God judges a sinner unto eternal punishment, the basis of that judgment is the sinner's own deeds.
God saves on the basis of His free grace; but He judges on the basis of works. As Paul says, they will have treasured up for themselves "wrath in the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who 'will render to each one according to his deeds'" (Rom. 2:5-6; cf. Ps. 62:12).
This leads us, finally, to look at ...
4. The Sentence.
John writes, "Then Death and Hades were cast into the lake of fire. This is the second death. And anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire" (vv. 14-15).
The place of final punishment is called by many names in the Bible. One of the descriptions the Bible gives to it is as a place of deep and terrible darkness. Both Peter and Jude said that those who were destined for ultimate judgment were "reserved for the blackness of darkness forever" (2 Pet. 2:17; Jude 13). Jesus Himself said that some would be "cast out into outer darkness" (Matt. 8:12).
Another description Jesus often gave it is as a place of "weeping and gnashing of teeth". He said that some would be cast into "outer darkness; there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 8:12; 22:13; 25:30).
The apostle Paul referred to it as a place characterized by punishment "with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power" (2 Thess. 1:9). Personally, I think this is one of the most dreadful descriptions of hell in the Bible. Imagine being everlastingly separated from God -- forever knowing that you were made for union with Him, but knowing that, now, you will forever be denied that relationship for which you were made -- suffering everlasting destruction from His presence, because you didn't want Him! Forever outside looking in! Forever dissatisfied! Forever destroyed!
Jesus referred to it as "an everlasting fire". He will say to those destined for punishment, "Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared or the devil and his angels" (Matthew 25:41). He called it an "unquenchable fire" (Matt. 3:12). He also referred to it as "the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth" (Matt. 13:42). How it can be both a place of "everlasting fire" and "outer darkness" at the same time simply shows how the dreadfulness of eternal punishment exceeds even our abilities of conception!
Here, in John's vision, it's presented as a "lake of fire" . The devil will be cast there. John says, "The devil, who deceived them, was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone where the beast and the false prophet are. And they will be tormented day and night forever and ever" (Rev. 20:10). "Death" and "Hades" are described as being cast into the Lake of Fire -- a euphemistic way of saying that all those who were held in Death and Hades will also be cast into the Lake of Fire with them.
And notice also that the experience of being cast into the lake of fire is called by another name: the second death. Surely, any one who knew the truth and was given the choice, would gladly suffer a million "first deaths" if it would mean that he or she could avoid the "second death".
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Men and women who had rejected God's offer of forgiveness for sins through Christ will be judged according to their works and will be found guilty. Their works will establish their guilt before God.
But in that respect, they're no different from a redeemed man or woman. Our works make us guilty before God as well. We all stand as guilty sinners before a holy God, no matter who we are. The guilt for sin alone isn't the reason why, in the end, those who will be condemned before the great white throne will suffer eternal punishment. It's not because of what's written in the books that record their deeds that they're finally cast into the Lake of Fire. It's because of what's not written in the Book of Life. They will have rejected the only other alternative to that terrible destiny that God has ever offered -- faith in the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. As John says, "anyone not found written in the Book of Life was cast into the lake of fire" (v. 15). Conclusion.
How should we react to this? What should our response be to such a dreadful passage? Our first response should be to examine ourselves. Can there be anything more important than being sure that you're name is recorded in the Book of Life? In Revelation 21:27, it's called the Lamb's Book of Life, because its the book of those who are united with Jesus -- the Lamb of God -- by faith. John said, in his first letter, "And this is the testimony: that God has given us life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has life; he who does not have the Son does not have life" (1 John 5:11-12).
If you've trusted Jesus Christ as your Savior -- if you've placed your trust in His sacrifice on the Cross -- then you have Him! And if you have Him, you have life! Your name is written indelibly in the Lamb's Book of Life; and you have no need to fear standing before Him at His judgment seat.
And if you have already trusted Him, then a second response to this passage should be one of both humility and praise. We should be humbled by the fact that, if we were to stand before God on the basis of what's written in our record of deeds, we'd surely be worthy of God's terrible judgment for sin. But we should also praise God for the fact that He has provided us with a Savior from this terrible judgment.
And finally, we should respond to this passage with a renewed sense of zeal to tell others about the Savior, so that they, too, can trust Him and be delivered from the wrath to come.
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