"The Blessings That Follow"
(Delivered Sunday, September 13, 2003 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)
As many of you know, the New Testament book of Revelation has grown to be one of my favorite books of the Bible. I used to be very intimidated by it; but I've become so familiar with it over the years that the intimidation eventually became replaced by awe. Today, I draw great encouragement from the Book of Revelation. And this morning, I'd like to direct your attention to one particular verse in the fourteenth chapter of Revelation.
Before we look at this verse, I believe it's very important that we take the time to consider the context in which it is found. It's specific context is that of the most terrible period of suffering that will ever occur in human history - the Great Tribulation. This section of Revelation describes a time in the future, just prior to the bodily return of His Son Jesus Christ to earth. It's a time during which God will permit the whole unbelieving world to fall under the delusion of a diabolical lie from Satan. A satanically-inspired world ruler will arise, drawing all the nations of the earth under his evil spell. As it says in Revelation 13:5, this world ruler - the antichrist - will be granted the power for a three-and-one-half-year period "to make war with the saints and to overcome them" (13:7). He will succeed in receiving the worship and devotion of all the unbelieving people of the world. Anyone who, out of a devotion to Jesus Christ, refuses to worship this world ruler will be killed. It will be a period of the persecution of God's people that will be world-wide in scope and unprecedented in intensity.
Now, it's always been true that those who would live godly lives in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. But this section of Revelation speaks of a time of persecution that will supercede any time that proceeds it. Everyone will be put on the crossroads of decision. There will be no "middle-of-the-road" place for anyone to camp on. People will be forced to choose either to worship Jesus Christ and suffer the wrath of this world, or to worship the 'beast' - that is, the antichrist - and suffer the wrath of Almighty God.
The book of Revelation, in chapters 11-13, describes the events that surround this terrible period of persecution. But in the fourteenth chapter, we find a break in events - as if God permits a pause to occur in the unfolding of these end-times events in order to give heaven's perspective of what's happening. That chapter tells us of a series of three angelic announcements that will be make to the world during this time. Revelation 14:6-11 records these three announcements; and they are unambiguous announcements indeed!
Then I saw another angle flying in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach to those who dwell on the earth - to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people - saying with a loud voice, "Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come; and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water. Another angel followed, saying, "Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city, because she has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication. Then a third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, "If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives his mark on his forehead or on his hand, he himself shall also drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out full strength into the cup of His indignation. He shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name" (Rev. 14:9-11).
Such announcements as these take away all options, don't they? And such a situation will force those who profess to be followers of Jesus Christ to be prepared to pay the ultimate price for that faith. True followers of Christ are describe as those who will overcome the satanic opposition of that time "by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, and they did not love their lives to the death" (12:11).
And what's very important in appreciating the context of this morning's verse is that we understand this fact: That time of persecution will be, for the follower of Jesus, a time of great witness. It's a time during which he or she is to faithfully endure suffering for the cause of Christ, faithfully proclaim their confident hope in Jesus in the face of dreadful opposition, and patiently wait for God to bring about justice in His time. What a time of witness it will be!
Before I read this morning's verse to you, please pause long enough to let this all-important fact sink into your understanding: God allows His saints to suffer persecution in this world, so that His Son will be faithfully proclaimed to this world. Jesus Himself asserted that times of intense persecution of the saints are - by design - a powerful opportunity for a witness for Christ. Our Lord was teaching His disciples about His own return to the earth - an event that will be heralded by "fearful sights and great signs from heaven" (Luke 21:11). And He said,
But before all these things, they will lay their hands on you and persecute you, delivering you up to the synagogues and prisons. You will be brought before kings and rulers for My name's sake. But it will turn out for you as an occasion for testimony. Therefore settle it in your hearts not to meditate beforehand on what you will answer; for I will give you a mouth and wisdom which all your adversaries will not be able to contradict or resist. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. And you will be hated by all for My name's sake. But not a hair of your head shall be lost. By your patience possess your souls (Luke 21:12-19).
During the Great Tribulation, many saints will pay for their faith with their own lives. But not a hear of their heads will be lost, in any ultimate sense. As Jesus said, on another occasion when He taught about the events surrounding His return: "Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it" (Luke 17:33). Their testing will prove to be only temporal, their loss by no means eternal, their suffering wonderfully proclamational, and their faithfulness soon to be gloriously rewarded.
This will, of course, require great patience on the part of the followers of Christ. "By your patience," Jesus said, "possess your souls." The believers who will be persecuted during the reign of the antichrist will be called upon to pay the price for their Savior that He Himself paid for them; and they will then be called upon to wait for God Himself to bring about justice on their behalf. That's why John was able to write the words we find just before this morning's verse, "Here is the patience of the saints; here are those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus." It's in their persistent, unrelenting allegiance to Jesus Christ, in the face of the most terrible persecution in human history, that they prove who they really are - and thus bear so bold a witness to the world of the One to whom they belong.
And that's the context of this morning's verse. Read by itself, and apart from its context, this short verse comes across as a very strange one. But I'm convinced that the apostle John recorded, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, as an encouragement to all those believers throughout history who would be called upon to patiently suffer persecution for the name of Christ - even during that most dreadful of future times. It says, "Then I heard a voice from heaven saying to me, "Write: 'Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.' "Yes," says the Spirit, "that they may rest from their labors, and their works follow them" (Rev. 14:13).
The word that describes the condition of these saints - "blessed" - basically means "happy" or "fortunate" or "privileged". It's making a seemingly absurd assertion: "How fortunate are those who suffer under the persecution of those days - and even pay the ultimate price! How happy their condition is!!" When seen in it's context, however, this little verse is like a precious pearl encouragement tucked deep inside a very ugly oyster. I believe that it's meant by God to be a powerful cause of motivation in our own Christian life. I believe that it's well worth digging out, polishing off, and examining closer.
We may not be called upon to suffer for our faith to the same degree and with the same intensity that these saints will suffer in the future. But nevertheless, I believe that this verse is meant to be an encouragement to us as well as to them. It teaches a principle that we're to trust in fully: Those who faithfully endure suffering in their witness for Christ to the very end - those who will not love their lives even to death - will be gloriously and wonderfully blessed after this life ends. It's a principle that demands persistence and patience on the part of those who embrace it, but that nevertheless will richly sustain those who cling faithfully to it.
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Let's examine this verse - and the principle it teaches us - by first considering ...
1. THE IDENTITY OF THE BLESSED.
John writes, "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on ..."; and in saying this, he is specifying who these blessed ones are. They are those who die "in the Lord".
What does it mean to "die in the Lord?" It means to first be in a relationship of vital union with Jesus Christ by faith while alive; and then, to meet death while still in that relationship. The apostle Paul wrote that, for him, "to live is Christ, and to die is gain" (Phil. 1:21); because "living" meant enjoying an ongoing fellowship with Jesus Christ, and "dying" simply meant enjoying even more of that fellowship.
Early on in my relationship with Jesus, I received a dramatic introduction to the difference a saving relationship with Jesus Christ makes. I was only sixteen years old when my best friend died. He was a Christian - a straight A student; and friend to a lot of the other kids in our high-school. (I say that he was my best friend; but I don't know that I could say I was his, because he had so many). He was my friend before I became a Christian - although I really had no idea what a Christian was at the time. And when I trusted Jesus as my Savior, this friend was the first person I called to tell about it. But neither I nor anyone else among our circle of friends new about an illness that he battled. Most of us at the time didn't even know what leukemia was. My friend was hospitalized with it for only one month before he died. For me, his death was a terribly sad day.
But I'll never forget his funeral. Though there were a lot of other young people present that were - like me - very sad at the loss of their friend, I was amazed at how joyful his family was. They had tears; but I could plainly see that they were tears shed in joy. They testified that this young man was with Jesus. His whole funeral service was a celebration of that wonderful fact. And God used that time to teach me that 'death' doesn't mean the same thing to the believer that it means to those who are outside of Christ. For the faithful believer in Christ, death is a victorious home-going.
This verse makes a remarkable assertion. Look at it again. "Blessed" or "happy", it says, are the dead. That's a statement that would make absolutely no sense to unbelieving people at all - especially considering that it makes this statement concerning people who are violently murdered for their faith. But it's not just any "dead" who are blessed, you see; it's those who "die in the Lord".
It's important to stress that this is a restrictive statement. It's not a declaration of "blessedness" for those who simply "die" - regardless of their relationship with the Lord. Folks often say that someone who has died "has gone to a happier place" - even if they had no interest in a relationship with Jesus Christ whatsoever. Such people "sentimentalize" death, and make "death" out to be a "blessing" to whoever dies - not realizing that the state of spiritual blessedness after death depends on a spiritual relationship with Christ before death. But this verse is quite specific: "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord ...;" that is, blessed are those who have died, having first placed their trust in the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross for their sins, and who enjoy a daily, ongoing relationship with Him by faith."
As unpleasant and distasteful a thing to talk about as it may be, it's a fact that, for those who are outside of Christ, death is not a blessing. The Holy Spirit inspired the writer of Hebrews to pen these dreadful words about those who reject the offer of the Gospel, and die "outside of Christ";
For if we sin willfully after we have received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain fearful expectation of judgment, and fiery indignation which will devour the adversaries. Anyone who has rejected Moses' law dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. Of how much worse punishment, do you suppose, will he be thought worthy who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, counted the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a common thing, and insulted the Spirit of grace? For we know Him who said, "Vengeance is Mine, I will repay," says the Lord. And again, "The LORD will judge His people." It's a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:26-31).
The Bible says that to die outside of Christ is not only 'not a blessing' - it's a "fearful thing". And our response to such words should be not to simply recoil from them in disgust, but to flee to the cross of Jesus Christ while we can. Such words would no doubt make some folks "feel bad"; but we must feel badly enough about our sin to flee to the cross first before we can feel the eternal "blessedness" of salvation in heaven!
The most important priority in our lives is to get ready for our dying day. And the way we get ready for dying is to do everything we can - while we can - to be absolutely sure that we die "in Christ." The only safe way to die is to die "in Christ". And how blessed are those who do!!
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So; that's the identity of the "blessed". They are the one's who die in Christ. Second, let's consider ...
2. THE NATURE OF THEIR BLESSING.
You'll notice that the words of this verse make it even more specific who the "blessed ones" are. It says, blessed are the dead who die in the Lord "from now on" or "from henceforth."
Some have assumed that this is a reference to a special sort of 'blessedness' only for those who are martyred after this point in the succession Tribulation events. I wont argue with those who believe that. But we'd also have to affirm that anyone who dies in the Lord - whoever they may be and at whatever point in history they may live - is, as Paul affirmed of himself, a great "gainer" upon death. He said, "to live is Christ, and to die is gain" - and that's true of all God's saints. Every believer who dies in the Lord will be, as Paul says elsewhere, "well-pleased" to be "absent from the body and to be present with the Lord" (2 Cor. 5:8). Every believer who dies in the Lord is immediately ushered into His glorious presence to forever be with Him. Surely every believer who dies in the Lord is infinitely blessed!
So then; what does this verse mean when it says that those are blessed who die in the Lord "from now on"? I suggest that this statement is meant to contrast the marvelous blessing, into which they now enter, against the backdrop of the dreadful times from which they depart.
For one thing, these Tribulation saints will be blessed because of leaving a time that uniquely calls upon them to endure with patience in their commitment; and, as it says in verse 12, to "keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus." They will be called upon to do so under the fiercest opposition imaginable, and during a time in which it will be harder to do so than at any other - and at death, that time of enduring will be over.
Just as it feels better to flop into bed at night after a very grueling day than it does when the day was easy and light - and just as the sleep of a laboring man is sweeter than that of a man who has an abundance (Eccl. 5:12) - so these believers will feel even more the "blessedness" of entering into the presence of Jesus than those of us who are called upon to suffer relatively less for Him. The more intense the suffering, the greater the sense of blessedness for those whose suffering finally comes to an end. Once they die, they are - from then on - richly "blessed".
And for another thing, these saints will be uniquely blessed because of the blessedness they'll enter into - made all the more precious to them because of all they had suffered. Notice how this verse describes the nature of the blessed state into which they enter.
First, it's a "rest." They're blessed from then on following death; and the substance of that blessedness is stated in this way: "that they may rest from their labors." The Greek word John uses is the same word Jesus used when He said, "Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest" (Matthew 11:28).
This isn't saying, of course, that they will enter into an eternal state of laziness and inactivity - as if they'll casually be lounging on the clouds, sipping celestial soft-drinks, and being waited on by heavenly servants - because the Bible affirms that the saints will forever be in the service of Jesus Christ (7:15; 22:5). But that service will be a joy and delight. This word "rest" means "to have relief from" or "to cease from" something; and the word used for "labor" means "hard, strenuous labor". They labored hard in bearing a faithful witness for Christ under the most intense and grueling time of opposition to Christ that human history will ever know; but now, they will be blessed because they enter into eternal rest from their hard labors. The terrible struggle and anguish of their witness is over. Their troubles have come to a glorious and victorious end.
Compare the glorious destiny of these saints with the destiny of those who put them to death! Revelation tells us that "they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name." Instead, "the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever" (v. 11). This, however, isn't the outlook for those who die in the Lord. The apostle Paul, at the end of his hard labors (and when you think about it, could anyone up to this time have been under harder labors for the gospel than Paul?) was able to write to Timothy and say,
For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing (2 Tim. 4:6-8).
These Tribulation saints will, like Paul, have fought the good fight, have finished the race, and have kept the faith. They, too, die in the Lord and enter into a blessed "rest" - a cessation from their hard and strenuous labors.
So the nature of their blessed state is, first of all, that of "rest". And second, notice that it is also that of "reward". The substance of their rest is such that "their works follow them."
Now once again, lets make sure we understand clearly what is not being said here. This verse isn't saying that they have entered into a blessed state on the basis of their works. It says specifically that their works "follow them" - not that they follow their works. Instead, what this is affirming is that their suffering for Christ and hard labor for Him is not forgotten by the Savior, and will by no means go unrewarded by Him.
Paul once urged the Corinthian believers to keep their hope firmly fixed on their future resurrection with Christ. He told them, "Therefore, my beloved brethren, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord" (1 Cor. 15:58). The writer of Hebrews likewise said, "For God is not unjust to forget your work and labor of love which you have shown toward His name, in that you have ministered to the saints, and do minister" (Heb. 6:10). Jesus Himself said that "whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple," (and here I believe "little ones" refers to even the lowliest follower of Jesus, whom the world would consider a 'nobody' but is precious in the Lord's sight), "assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward" (Matthew 10:42). He told the church in the ancient city of Philadelphia; ""Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown" (Rev. 3:11). The Master will not fail to reward His faithful witnesses on earth - no matter what they may suffer while bearing that witness.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ; these are blessings that we, too can claim for ourselves. When we suffer for our devotion for Christ - when family and friends turn away from us because of our love for Him - when the world seems to pour its contempt on us, and fight against us at every step because we seek to follow Jesus - we should be greatly encouraged. Blessings lie just around the corner; and it wont be long before we'll see them.
Jesus' call for us may be to suffer for Him until we die. But if that's so, then let's be persistent and patient - laboring faithfully until the very end. And then, we'll find that our suffering will be wonderfully over. Our hard labors will come to an end and we will enter into a glorious rest of eternal, joyous, unhindered, unlimited service to the beloved Savior. We will see His face. We will hear His "Well done!". And we will enjoy the reward that is incorruptible, undefiled, unfading and reserved in heaven for us (1 Peter 1:4). Let's never give up; but let's keep pressing on faithfully until that day.
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So far, then, we've seen the identify of the blessed, and the nature of their blessing. But we have to ask an important question: Is all of this true? Can we be sure? I have no doubt that those who have suffered for Christ in the past were tempted to ask that same question. I don't doubt that the saints in the Tribulation will be tempted to ask it. And I don't doubt that some of you might be asking it right now. This leads us, finally, to consider ...
3. THE CERTAINTY OF THEIR BLESSEDNESS.
There are two parties speaking in this verse; and I believe that they give us a testimony of the certainty of these things.
First, you'll notice that John begins this verse by saying, "Then I heard a voice from heaven ..." Just who it is speaking these things we're not told. We're just told from where it is that the voice speaks; and that's enough. This affirmation of the blessedness of the dead in the Lord comes to us from heaven itself - the place in which, throughout the book of Revelation, the throne of the Almighty God is the center of attention; the place in which the angelic hosts continually praise and glorify God for His grace to the saints; the very place to which these saints who die in the Lord are going. The affirmation in this verse has the authority of no less than heaven itself to back it up. It ought to be axiomatic to us that, whenever 'heaven' declares someone to be blessed, they are blessed indeed!!
You'll also notice that this voice commands John to "write" these things. This isn't meant to express to us that John wasn't writing before all this, because he was writing the whole book long. Rather, it's a command given to affirm to us that, what he's written, he's written under orders; and it is therefore certain and true. It's meant to affirm to us that John was not writing from out of his own initiative, but rather is recording the very declaration of heaven itself. It's as if the authority of heaven itself speaks aloud in our hearing and says, "Let it be written as an unchanging testimony! Let it be recorded for all to see! Put it down in black and white! 'Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on!'"
Then, you'll notice that a second voice confirms what is said by the first. The verse says, "'Yes, says the Spirit, 'that they may rest from their labors, and their works follow them.'" The affirmation of the blessedness of those who die in the Lord has no less an endorsement than that of the Holy Spirit Himself - the third Person of the Triune Godhead; the very Spirit by whom Jesus was made gloriously alive from the dead (1 Pet. 3:18; Rom. 8:11); and the very Spirit who has pledged to help us in our weaknesses and to interceded for us with groanings which cannot be uttered (Rom. 8:26-27).
Any affirmation of blessedness that has the backing of heaven, and is then given an "Amen" from the Holy Spirit, is certain without question! We can gladly, confidently, and fully give ourselves over to the service of Jesus Christ; suffering whatever may come as a result, even the loss of our own life - because the blessings that follow are as certain as anything could possibly be.
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Isn't it fascinating that, out of so many things that are in the book of Revelation, John was told very specifically - with reference to this affirmation of blessing - to write it down? It was meant by God to be recorded and read by the saints throughout the ages - whether they suffered for the cause of Christ in the first century of the church's history, or in the days just before Jesus bodily returns. It's an affirmation for us to read and cling to as well.
You and I can consider this among the surest things that we could ever count on in life: that those who faithfully endure suffering for their witness of Christ to the very end - and who will not love their lives even to death - will be gloriously and wonderfully blessed after their life ends. If you are in Christ, then you can give yourself confidently over to serve Him; knowing that there are sure and certain blessings that will follow.
Could you need any more assurance than that? Well; just in case you do, let me close with the words of the Son of God Himself. You can count fully on the words of our faithful Savior - Who Himself suffered death for our sins, and was then raised in power and glory. He said,
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when they revile and persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely for My sake. Rejoice and be exceedingly glad, for great is your reward in heaven ..." (Matthew 5:10-12).
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