The Gospel of Christmas Future
Preached by Jason Abbott
I listened to a former homiletics professor preach Revelation chapter twenty, and this is how he introduced his sermon. I quote:
So, here’s a few things that I read this past week…as I began to do sermon preparation…. “When we come to Revelation chapter 20, we have reached what are probably the most controversial verses in the book of Revelation.” Here’s what another said, “This is the best known passage of the book of Revelation as well as one of the most divisive passages in the Bible.” I particularly like this one, “This passage is a constant source of insurmountable difficulty.” [My former professor then concludes by saying,] Makes you wonder what’s going to happen come Sunday morning.1
You might add to these reservations about preaching Revelation twenty: “Makes you wonder why Jason chose this passage for Advent—for our celebration of the birth of Christ.”
Well, here’s why.
The fundamental event in all of human history is the birth and life and death and resurrection and coming consummated reign of Jesus Christ. These are united! They’re an event! Jesus’s birth means nothing without his death and resurrection. His death and resurrection mean nothing without his return. His return nothing without his eternal reign! Human history means nothing without this good news about Jesus Christ. (Just consider Siri’s godless answer concerning life’s meaning: “a long play [one writes] in which nothing happens.”)
Look, many of us have played with dominoes—setting up long lines of them and then touching them off and watching as one inevitably sets the next in motion. Friends, God’s redemptive history—his gospel history—is not unlike this.
When God in Isaiah 9 (and long before it!) told us of the coming Messiah, Jesus was as good as born already because God never, ever makes empty promises. And, when Jesus was born, he was as good as crucified since he, Incarnate God, came for that precise purpose. And, so also, following his death, his resurrection and following his resurrection, his ascension and…the gospel dominoes fall.
Therefore, we can approach the gospel of Christmas future, Christ’s return, with as much historical certainty as the good news of Christmas past or present because they are in reality part of the same plan—part of the same sovereign event. You see, the Jesus, who was taken up…into heaven, will [certainly] come [again] in the same way (Acts 1:11).
Well, let’s look at this gospel event again as we peer forward into the gospel of Christmas future. If you’re in the brown Bibles, it’s on page 1190.
1 Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. 2 And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, 3 and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while.
4 Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. 5 The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. 6 Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years.
What you’re told about the future should change how you live in the now. This is true for us, isn’t it? If your wife tells you you’re hosting a Christmas party then you begin to make preparations now: cleaning, planning, buying refreshments. If your boss tells you you’re being transferred to a new corporate office in Europe then you begin to make arrangements right now: putting your house on the market, learning a new language, studying a new culture.
Friends, the same is true about what we’re told of our theological future.
In this passage, we find out about the last stage of God’s redemptive history. We find out about a time when Jesus Christ will return and reign for a millennium; it’s a picture of the gospel of Christmas future in the final days of this fallen world. And, what we learn of the future from this vision should change how we live now; we must prepare this day for that glorious coming day.
So, what do we learn? Well, we learn three things from this future history. (1) We learn about the catch and release of public enemy number one. (2) We learn about a death defeated and a death repeated. And (3), because of these, we learn about how we should live in the now.
1. The catch and release of public enemy number one (vv. 1-3).
Perhaps you can recall from memory a great public enemy being defeated—being captured or killed. Maybe it was the news of Adolf Hitler’s suicide in 1945 or the arrest of David Berkowitz, better known as Son of Sam, in August of 1977 or the killing of Osama bin Laden in May of 2011.
If you remember these or others, likely you felt relieved or even jubilant upon hearing the news. Yet, it wasn’t long before the relief or jubilation wore off and some new despot, serial killer, or terrorist moved to quickly fill the vacancy—some Joseph Stalin or Jeffrey Dahmer or Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
Well, here we have no such problem since this public enemy is the real deal, the public enemy behind them all, and his post will remain vacant forever and ever. Yet, notice how powerless the devil is in these verses. John writes:
Then I saw an angel coming down from heaven, holding in his hand the key to the bottomless pit and a great chain. And he seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil and Satan, and bound him for a thousand years, and threw him into the pit, and shut it and sealed it over him, so that he might not deceive the nations any longer, until the thousand years were ended. After that he must be released for a little while (vv. 1-3).
Here’s “that ancient serpent” who has, from the beginning of human history, wrought havoc upon the earth—who has prowled “around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). Then, in a mere anticlimactic instant, God says, “That’s enough. Throw him in the pit.”
When Benjamin was a senior and I a teacher at Jefferson City High School, there was a freshman named Domenik Peterson who had just moved to town. When track season rolled around, Domenik joined the team, and he got a uniform. (A freshmen uniform, they never gave freshmen anything but freshmen uniforms! There’s traditional protocol for everything in Jeff City athletics.)
Well, as the season unfolded, Peterson won every freshmen race he was in then won every junior varsity race he was in until they finally began to let him run in the varsity races (while wearing a freshmen uniform!).
Benjamin recalls watching him dominate the 200 meter against fast seniors from a number of different high schools (while still wearing a freshmen uniform!). I recall Domenik, that same year, winning the 100, 200, and 400 meter dashes during the big-class state championship. And, the races weren’t really even close! The competition seemed powerless against him!
Friends, this is a picture of the Incarnate Son. In putting on human flesh, Jesus donned a kind of freshmen uniform. Satan was undefeated against mankind; he’d never met a man whom he couldn’t beat. Then, here comes this Son of Man—this God in a freshmen uniform, and he tosses “that ancient serpent” like a rag doll or, as Paul puts it:
[When] the lawless one will be revealed…the Lord Jesus will kill [him] with the breath of his mouth and bring [him] to nothing by the appearance of his coming (2 Thessalonians 2:8).
The devil’s powerless against God. Through the sacrificial work of Jesus, God has rendered him impotent. There’s simply no competition. That’s the picture which we have here in Revelation twenty—the good news of Christmas future.
You may wonder, however, why Satan would be released for a little while. Why would God, who is so capable of handling the devil, set him free for a time? This is a good question and well worth asking.
Allow me to suggest it is done to reveal the justice of God’s final judgment, to demonstrate that God’s been patient and merciful with the rebellion against him. In other words, in his wrath, God does not hastily condemn but carefully discerns. One commentator explains it this way:
Apparently a thousand years of confinement does not alter Satan’s plans, nor does a thousand years of freedom from the influence of wickedness change people’s basic tendency to rebel against their creator.2
Friends, when God—in just a few verses—once and for all defeats the devil, public enemy number one, and tosses him into hell with all who’d follow him, there is no question that they are past the point of reform. Hell will not be filled with those begging for mercy but with those forever shaking their proverbial fists at the grace and mercy and love of God.
Well, let’s now turn our attention to:
2. A death defeated and a death repeated (vv. 4-6).
Look at what John sees next in his vision of the future:
Then I saw thrones, and seated on them were those to whom the authority to judge was committed. Also I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for the testimony of Jesus and for the word of God, and those who had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended. This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection! Over such the second death has no power, but they will be priests of God and of Christ, and they will reign with him for a thousand years (vv. 4-6).
Now there’s much here which I won’t cover (and which some have debated for centuries and centuries!). However, I do want us to consider these two deaths since they are incredibly important for us to consider.
Inspired by God’s Spirit, John pictures a “first resurrection” for his readers. This is a resurrection from the first death—a death each and every one of us faces in this fallen world unless Christ comes first. This first resurrection is for believers; which believers are resurrected is debated—all believers; only martyred believers, only beheaded, martyred believers? (I’ve got my view, but if you want to know it, it’ll cost you a cup of coffee!)
Here’s the important point though; John shows the defeat of this first death (either the beginning or the totality of it) for all those who’ve trusted in Christ. Thus, for Christians, this is very good news! Death has no more power over those in Christ Jesus! Our sins, and the death they bring, have been taken away from us! This is the gospel of Christmas future!
But, there is a death that looms powerfully over those who aren’t in Christ. This is “the second death” which John mentions here. This term “second death” is, in rabbinic speak, a way of talking about what sin brings when it runs its course. It’s “a state to be regarded with horror.”3 It’s a state we far too casually mention—the state of damnation or hell, the state of eternal separation from God’s goodness. This is “the second death” for all who reject God’s mercy in Christ.
Friends look, I’m a pastor; this is a sermon. So let’s just get it right out there. If you are here and haven’t turned away from a life in which you’re on the throne, a life in which you play god—then consider John’s picture of this future and turn, in the present, to Jesus for mercy.
The gospel event is underway. The dominoes are falling. Please don’t wait for one more instant!
Well, in light of these future realities, we should consider:
3. How we should live in the now.
It’s difficult not to think, at this point, of Scrooge following his final visit from the Ghost of Christmas Future. What does Scrooge do after seeing the future of Christmas if he remains unchanged? Well, he is changed! He’s transformed! Scrooge lives differently in light of what he sees in Christmas future.
And, our revelation of the gospel of Christmas future should also change us. Look, we have seen the justice and power of our Triune God. We have seen Satan, in an instant, robbed of his influence. His time is short! He is done for! So now:
- Stop wanting the things of Satan: longing for what our neighbor has, trusting in our bank account, or thinking about ourselves too highly.
- Start freely serving God: peacefully, patiently, kindly, and lovingly.
Moreover, the gospel of Christmas future is given for our living right now. And there are very real future consequences for what we believe and how we live in the now. Specifically, there’s either a second life to live or a second death to die. So believers should consequently:
- Stop living in fear now: worrying about what others think about us, obsessing over the fear mongering politicians and news outlets around us, or pandering to those people who, we think, might boost our prospects financially, socially, or any other kind of ly.
- Start living courageously now: giving generously of ourselves to others, being vulnerable and open and intimate in how we live out our marriages, and humbling ourselves to apologize to all those whom we have offended or to forgive all those who’ve offended us.
Friends, knowing the gospel of Christmas future makes all this possible and, even, essential. God’s revelation of this past, present, and future good news event both enables and calls us to live transformed lives now, by the power of the Spirit. Let me close by praying that we’d be just this kind of church.