We Have Something of Heaven
A Theology of Joy In Revelation
(Three Part Article, Con’t, Part 2)
(Article by Brian Tabb, Academic Dean, Bethlehem College & Seminary)
Taste of Heaven
What then do we mean by end-time joy? In brief, end-time joy is a believer’s great pleasure and happiness as we anticipate the fullness of our triune God’s saving power and satisfying presence in the age to come and experience the foretaste of these realities even as we suffer and struggle now in the midst of the old age. Peter expresses well the tension of our already–not yet joy in suffering:
In this [salvation ready to be revealed in the last time] you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith — more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire — may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1:6–9)
Peter acknowledges the stunning glories of end-time salvation as well as the sorrow and various trials of his readers’ present experience. We rejoice now even though we struggle and grieve and do not see our Savior face to face. This joy is not motivated by our present predicament but by our glorious future inheritance and the beauty and sufficiency of our Savior, whom we love and trust even though we don’t see him with our eyes. Peter’s description of this joy as “filled with glory” (ESV) or “glorious” (NIV) links it to the eschatological “glory” at Jesus’s return (1 Peter 1:7). Thus, “the joy believers experience is a taste of heaven, an anticipation of the end.”8
Images of End-Time Joy
We turn now to consider four glorious pictures of end-time joy in the book of Revelation: joy in an ultimate deliverance, a decisive victory, a spectacular wedding, and a secure home. In this book, the exalted Lord Jesus reveals symbolic visions to John “to show his servants the things that must soon take place” (Revelation 1:1). These end-time visions offer a divine perspective on what is true, valuable, and lasting, which corrects and clarifies our perception of this world as it really is.9 John’s visions encourage struggling saints to persevere in difficult days and warn readers to resist worldly compromise, spiritual complacency, and false teaching.10
Joy in an Ultimate Deliverance
Israel’s exodus from Egypt is the Old Testament’s signature story of salvation. The Lord hears the cries of his enslaved people and acts in accordance with his covenant with Abraham. He passes over his people while striking the Egyptians, dries up the sea, saves Israel with an outstretched arm, and leads them to the land of promise. The prophets expected the God of the exodus someday to decisively rescue his people after exile and judge their oppressors.11 Revelation presents the ultimate fulfillment of this biblical hope of salvation.
The Lord does not merely deliver his people from slavery, sin, and death; he saves us to satisfy us by his presence and make us servants who carry out his purpose. Exodus 19:4–6 summarizes well this aim of the first exodus:
You yourselves have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
The phrase kingdom of priests aptly summarizes Israel’s God-given vocation to mediate Yahweh’s presence, blessing, and revelation to all the nations (cf. Isaiah 61:6). Revelation similarly refers to Jesus’s blood-bought people as a “kingdom and priests to our God” (Revelation 5:10; cf. 1:6). In both Exodus and Revelation, God’s people are redeemed by sacrifice to serve him as a kingdom of priests. In Revelation 5:9–10 the heavenly worshipers sing a new song extolling Jesus as supremely worthy because he has accomplished the long-awaited new exodus deliverance of people for God from every tribe, language, and nation. Jesus has already decisively freed us from the penalty and power of our sins through his sacrificial death (Revelation 1:5). He will ultimately deliver us from the presence of sin and its effects as he leads us into our eternal inheritance (Revelation 21:7).
In Revelation 7:9–10, John sees an innumerable multitude standing before the throne declaring, “Salvation belongs to our God . . . and to the Lamb.” Salvation is exodus language (Exodus 14:13; 15:2), and the palm branches in these worshipers’ hands recall the feast of booths, which memorialized Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and anticipated their ultimate redemption after exile (Leviticus 23:40–43; Zechariah 14:16; cf. John 12:13).
In Revelation 15:2, John sees people “who had conquered the beast . . . standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands.” These victors then “sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb” (Revelation 15:3).12 Most likely, the victors do not sing two different songs but one great song of salvation with two great movements. The first, “the song of Moses,” calls to mind the Old Testament’s paradigmatic act of redemption in the exodus (see Exodus 15:1–18), while the second movement, “the song of the Lamb,” celebrates the new exodus deliverance from sin and the final victory over the beast and all God’s enemies that Jesus achieves as the greater Passover Lamb. We are thus saved to sing of the Almighty’s great and amazing deeds of salvation (Revelation 15:3).13
Joy in a Decisive Victory
The redeemed also rejoice in God’s decisive victory over his foes. In Revelation 19:1–5, a threefold hallelujah booms from heaven in response to Babylon’s demise. The first two hallelujahs issue from “a great multitude in heaven,” who declare God’s praises because he has judged the great prostitute Babylon and has vindicated his slain servants. They cry, “Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up forever and ever” (Revelation 19:1–3). The heavenly elders and living creatures respond, “Amen. Hallelujah!” and call God’s servants to praise him (Revelation 19:4–5).
Babylon is a rich biblical-theological designation for godless, proud human society that seeks its own glory and oppresses God’s people. The name hearkens back to Nebuchadnezzar’s mighty kingdom, Babylon, and its ancient namesake, Babel, where people proudly united to make a name for themselves (Genesis 11:1–9).14 The great political powerhouse Rome embodied this archetypal city of man in the first century. But Rome was simply the latest in a long line of societies that boast for a time in their success and strength until their pride leads to a great fall.
This scene of heavenly exultation at Babylon’s fall sharply contrasts with the scenes of powerful and wealthy people on earth lamenting as they see “the smoke of her burning” (Revelation 18:9, 18). The angel explains that Babylon “will be found no more” and highlights five things that “will be . . . no more” in the great city: the sights of craftsmen and lighted lamps, and the sounds of musicians, mills, and marriage.15 This list of special and commonplace lost joys concludes appropriately with the end of weddings. Thus, Babylon the great is “a city without a bride” (Revelation 18:23),16 which prepares the way for the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:7) and the presentation of Jerusalem as the bejeweled Bride (Revelation 21:9–11).
Following the joyous news that the Lamb’s bride is ready for the marriage supper, John sees the glorious champion — Christ, the King of kings — riding on a white horse with heaven’s armies behind him. God’s most formidable enemies have assembled for the last battle against Christ (Revelation 16:12–16; 19:19). One expects a fierce fight, but instead birds are summoned to feast on the flesh of God’s foes (Revelation 19:17–18), and the opponents are completely defeated (Revelation 19:20–21).17 Christ’s followers rejoice and take heart that their Savior is also their returning King, whose people will share in his consummate victory. (part 3 tomorrow)
- C.S. Lewis, The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, repr. ed., The Chronicles of Narnia (New York: HarperCollins, 1994), 20. ↩
- See Genesis 1:31; Matthew 5:45; Acts 14:17; 1 Timothy 4:4. ↩
- See Psalms 90:14; 107:9; Jeremiah 31:14, 25; Philippians 3:1; 4:4. ↩
- “Joy,” English Oxford Living Dictionaries, accessed 2 November 2018, https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/joy. ↩
- John Piper similarly explains that in Philippians, “Christian joy is a good feeling in the soul, produced by the Holy Spirit, as he causes us to see the beauty of Christ in the word and in the world” (“How Do You Define Joy?” Desiring God, 25 July 2015, https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/how-do-you-define-joy). ↩
- See Genesis 49:1; Numbers 24:14; Deuteronomy 4:30; 31:29; Isaiah 2:2; Jeremiah 23:20; 30:3, 24; 31:31; 33:14; 48:47; 49:39; Ezekiel 38:16; Daniel 10:14; Hosea 3:5; Micah 4:1; Acts 2:17; 2 Timothy 3:1; Hebrews 1:2; James 5:3; 2 Peter 3:3. ↩
- For additional explanation of inaugurated eschatology, see G. K. Beale, “The End Starts at the Beginning,” in Benjamin L. Gladd and Matthew S. Harmon, Making All Things New: Inaugurated Eschatology for the Life of the Church (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2016), 3–14. ↩
- Thomas R. Schreiner, 1, 2 Peter, Jude, NAC 37 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2003), 70. Similarly Paul declares that fellow believers “are our glory and joy” now and will be “our hope or joy or crown of boasting before our Lord Jesus at his coming” (1 Thessalonians 2:19–20; cf. Philippians 4:1). Paul rejoices in these saints for Christ’s sake, celebrating the work that he has done, is doing, and will bring to completion in and through them when Christ returns (Philippians 1:6). ↩
- Similarly Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, NTT (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 10. ↩
- For an expanded treatment of the purpose of Revelation, see Brian J. Tabb, All Things New: Revelation as Canonical Capstone, NSBT 48 (London: Apollos; Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2019), 8–9. ↩
- See, for example, Isaiah 40:3–5; 32:1–2, 16–19; 51:9–11; Jeremiah 23:5–8. ↩
- A number of commentators argue that the conjunction kai (“and”) in Revelation 15:3 it is better translated “even” or “that is,” identifying “the song of Moses” and “the song of the Lamb” as a single hymn. See, for example, G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 793; Grant R. Osborne, Revelation, BECNT (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 564. ↩
- The beast in Revelation recalls the great vision in Daniel 7. The beast likely signifies the state’s political and military power. Satan empowers the beast for a time to wage war on God’s people while demanding total allegiance and even worship (Revelation 13:1–8), until Jesus conquers the beast and hurls it into the lake of fire (Revelation 19:20). ↩
- The names Babel and Babylon render the same Hebrew word, bābel. ↩
- This list alludes to Jeremiah 25:10 and several other Old Testament texts. For details, see Tabb, All Things New, 173–74. ↩
- Lynn R. Huber, Like a Bride Adorned: Reading Metaphor in John’s Apocalypse, Emory Studies in Early Christianity 10 (New York: T&T Clark, 2007), 185. ↩
- The strange supper scene in Revelation 19:17–18 alludes to the graphic curse against Gog in Ezekiel 38–39. See G. K. Beale and Sean McDonough, “Revelation,” in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 1144. ↩