Bride of Christ (Revelation 17-22)

(This is part-two of a look at the Church as the Bride of Christ. If you prefer to watch or listen to the sermon, click here. An approximately six-minute explanation of the apocalyptic genre begins at 19:52, while the sermon starts at 25:36 and lasts approximately 23 minutes.)

Today we’ll see something of the pre-wedding jitters the church experiences (chapter 18), we’ll glimpse the great wedding of the king and his bride (chapter 19), and we will see what their life is going to be like in the age to come (chapters 21-22).

First, the pre-wedding jitters. People normally experience pre-wedding jitters because they are conscious of the enormity of the life-long life change that is about to take place. But there can be other reasons for pre-wedding jitters.

In 1942, young American men went off to war in record numbers – something like 4 million of them entered the armed services. Some of them proposed to their girlfriends on the eve of their departure to Europe or the South Pacific.

Girls made wedding plans, composed guest lists, and wrote out invitations, but they left the wedding date off because they didn’t know when it would be. Some got married when their fiancé came home on leave, but others had to wait until the war was over.

They had “war jitters.” So does the church. The marriage of Christ and his church will not take place until the war is over and the King has returned. Are you aware that a war is going on? It is the great war, the war that births, and will finally end, all wars. Revelation uses twin images to represent the combatants in this war – images of cities and of women.

Now, remember the genre. Revelation is more poetry than prose, more song than manual. In apocalyptic literature images sometimes overlap. They can flow into one another. That is especially true in Revelation 17-19, where two women are 2 cities that express one age-old reality.

Chapter 17 introduces us to the woman called the “the great prostitute.” These are verses 3-6:

I saw a woman sitting on a scarlet beast that was covered with blasphemous names and had seven heads and ten horns. The woman was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. She held a golden cup in her hand, filled with abominable things and the filth of her adulteries. The name written on her forehead was a mystery: Babylon the great, the mother of prostitutes and of the abominations of the earth. I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus.

Both the woman prostitute and the city Babylon image the same enemy of God’s people. To further complicate matters, Jews and Christians of the time often referred to Rome as “Babylon.” We find this in 2 Esdras, 2 Baruch, and the Sibylline Oracles but, more importantly, in 1 Peter, where “Babylon” is a code name for Rome.

And if that isn’t confusing enough, add apocalyptic symbolism to the mix. In 17:9, we read: “The seven heads are seven hills on which the woman [the prostitute] sits.” Rome was and is known as the City of Seven Hills.

So, on the one hand, we have the woman who is Babylon which is also Rome. But I said there were two women. What about the other one? The other woman (19:7) is the bride of the Lamb, the Church of Christ. She is also a city (21:3): “…the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”

So, this is the Tale of Two Cities,[1] which is also the tale of two women, which is also the one story of the earth’s history. The two cities could not be any less alike. Babylon is (18:2) “a home for demons and a haunt for every evil spirit” while New Jerusalem is (21:3) “the dwelling place of God [and] men.” Babylon is self-indulgent. New Jerusalem is sacrificially compassionate. Babylon’s sins are piled up to heaven (18:5) but New Jerusalem is clothed in righteous deeds (19:8). Babylon draws its energy from hell while New Jerusalem comes down out of heaven.

So we have two women who are two cities that express one age-old reality. That reality existed before there were cities, when there was only a garden, when there was Eden. It has expressed itself in city after city: magnificent Pi-Ramesses, Egypt; brutal Ninevah, Assyria; beautiful Babylon; intellectual Athens; powerhouse Rome; Enlightenment Paris; Nazi Berlin; Marxist Moscow; and Maoist Beijing. They all have rejected God’s rule and oppressed his people. Age in and age out, in one city after another, this spirit has emerged. Please God that “pursuit-of-happiness America” (as Eugene Peterson once put it) doesn’t follow suit.[2]

Babylon is what takes God’s people away from him. It is seductive, luring people away from God to luxuries and distractions. It is also bloodthirsty, slaughtering the people of God, whenever they get in the way. When this letter was written, that spirit had broken out in Rome. Today, it is has emerged in China. Where will it rage tomorrow? It is ongoing but it is not endless. There will be a last battle.

The war will come to a head someday – perhaps in our day – and when it does, it will not go well with Babylon, or whatever its global expression is at the time. That is why, in 18:4, heaven cries, “Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues.” The language is taken from Jeremiah and repeated by Paul in 2 Corinthians. The church of Jesus must not allow itself to be enmeshed in the lifestyle of Babylon. To do so is a betrayal of the king.[3] The time to choose a side is not when war has already broken out. The time is now.

Revelation 18:10 pictures how the age-old war ends: “Woe! Woe, O great city, O Babylon, city of power! In one hour your doom has come!” The long torture of the earth, the brutal mistreatment of her poor, the harassment, minimization, and persecution of God’s children will be over. The half-truths, the dirty dealings, the under the table bribes, the hubris of wealth, the misuse of power, will end. Unhealthy working conditions, starvation, lack of water, coercion, loss of dignity will be gone, replaced by peace, kindness, respect, and joy. The war will be over. The kingdom will come. The king will reign.

Not everyone will be happy about this. In fact, those who have succumbed to Babylon’s seductions will be shocked and grieved. The kings (18:9, 10), the national governments that have increased their power through an alliance with the Prostitute, will “weep and mourn” and “be terrified.” Without her seduction and distraction, their power over people will be broken.

The merchants, the economic drivers, the stock marketers, the Davos crowd, the one-percenters and their entourage of 10 and 20-percenters, will “weep and mourn and cry…” (18:15,16a). They “were the world’s great men” (18:23) who cast their magic spell – from places like Silicon Valley – to make themselves rich. But the war doesn’t go their way. They lose everything. They are broken.

Then there are the working people who earn their living by an economy they’ve inherited and on which they depend. These people are us. John points to the logistics guys of his time, the people who shipped goods. In our day, the job that employs the most people in the U. S. is truck driving, delivering the kinds of goods Revelation 18 describes. These people, too, are in shock. What are they going to do now?

But while these people are weeping, the people of God are whooping it up (18:20). “Rejoice saints and apostles and prophets! God has judged her for the way she treated you.”

It is important to understand this: The welfare of God’s people is not linked to an economic system. Their lives do not rise and fall with the numbers on Wall Street’s big board. They are in the hands of the big God, and he is strong to save. He has long been patient, not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9) but he will not bear with injustice, violence, hatred, and haughtiness forever. He will make an end.

He will make an end. That is powerfully clear in chapter 18, where in one short section (verses 14-23), the words “no more” appear six times. There will come a day when God says, “No more. It is enough.”

A student in an African seminary asked his professor what Jesus is going to say when he returns. He wanted to know because 1 Thessalonians 4:16 says: “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a shout …” What, he wanted to know, will he shout? The professor thought for a moment, then said: “I think he’ll shout: “ENOUGH!” Enough deceit. Enough injustice. Enough hostility and coldness. Enough death. ENOUGH!”

He will say, “Enough,” and, before anyone knows what has happened, the world will change. Economies will collapse. Nations will crumble. The long night, with its nightmares and frights, will finally end. And that end will usher in the new beginning.

The jitters will be over, liberation will be accomplished, and the victory of the king will be complete. Heaven will yell “Booyah!” or “Hallelujah” (which is the biblical equivalent). With the war over, nothing stands in the way of the marriage of the King and his bride. This is Revelation 19:5-7:

Then a voice came from the throne, saying: “Praise our God, all you his servants, you who fear him, both small and great!” Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting: “Hallelujah! For our Lord God Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.

This is not the event of the season; this is the event of time and eternity. Isaiah wrote about it this way:

“…the Lord will prepare a feast for all peoples, a banquet of aged wines – the best of meats and the finest of wines. On this mountain, he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever! The Sovereign LORD will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove the disgrace of his people from all the earth. In that day they will say, ‘Surely this is our God; we trusted in him, and he saved us. This is the LORD, we trusted in him; let us rejoice and be glad in his salvation’” (Isaiah 25:6-9).

The weight we have carried throughout our lives – seldom aware of it but always weighed down by it, robbed of joy, sabotaged in our relationships, and deceived in our thoughts; the burden of sin – will be lifted from us, and our hearts will be buoyant as we cannot now imagine. The church will then be joined to her King, and a new life will begin, a life beyond imagination.

Revelation 21:1-6 sketches the outline of that life, which the rest of chapters 21 and 22 fill in.

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “Behold: I am make all things new!”

It is a life of presence, where God is with us. (That is outlined in verse 3 and filled in from verses 10-21.) No more doubt, no more separation. No more fear.

It is a life of safety. How can we feel unsafe in the presence of our King? Verses 22-23 fill this in, as does 22:4.

It is a life of happiness. That is outlined in verses 3 and 4, where death has died, and mourning, crying, and pain are gone forever.

It is a life of purity. (Verse 25 fills this in.) The sins that have clung to us, that we have hated but held, renounced but obeyed, will be lifted from us forever. They will bother us no more.

It will be a life of fruitfulness. We will have good, creative, joyful, life-giving things to do. Our work will not destroy the earth but enrich it. Our work will not harm our neighbors but bless them. Our work will stretch us out but never wear us down.

It will be a life of rest that is not idle, of work that is not wearying, of surprises that are not unwelcome. No more boredom, no more fear, no more wishing the day to be over, or dreading the day to come.

If you say, “But this is too good to be true,” I will counter: It is not yet good enough to be true of the One who is faithful and true. He has more – and better – planned for us than we can conceive. For “no eye has seen, no ear has heard, nor has the human mind imagined the things that God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9).

If you say we are unworthy, I can only respond: Of course! This is not about our worth but about our King and Savior Jesus Christ. When we look at ourselves, we will worry about this (and everything else). When we look at him, we will forget all about it.

Joni Eareckson Tada (a remarkable saint of our time), was paralyzed in a diving accident as a teen. When she was in her 30s, she fell in love and was engaged. But when the wedding finally arrived, she was filled with anxiety.

She says: “I felt awkward as my girlfriends strained to shift my paralyzed body into a cumbersome wedding gown. No amount of corseting and binding my body gave me a perfect shape. The dress just didn’t fit well. Then, as I was wheeling into the church, I glanced down and noticed that I’d accidentally run over the hem of my dress, leaving a greasy tire mark. My paralyzed hands couldn’t hold the bouquet of daisies that lay off-center on my lap. And my chair, though decorated for the wedding, was still a big, clunky gray machine with belts, gears, and ball bearings. I certainly didn’t feel like the picture-perfect bride in a bridal magazine.

“I inched my chair closer to the last pew to catch a glimpse of Ken in front. There he was, standing tall and stately in his formal attire. I saw him looking for me, craning his neck to look up the aisle. My face flushed, and I suddenly couldn’t wait to be with him. I had seen my beloved. The love in Ken’s face had washed away all my feelings of unworthiness. I was his pure and perfect bride.” [4]

This, I believe, will be the Church’s experience too. Seeing our Lord (the beatific vision) will change us and everything else. We can never make ourselves worthy but we can make ourselves ready. How do we do that? Revelation 21:7: “…the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.” How? Verse 8: “‘Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.’ (Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of the saints.)”

The church pretties herself, prepares herself for her wedding day by doing the righteous acts God has given her to do (Ephesians 2:10). Her deeds cannot make her worthy but they can make her beautiful. The church, and not just the individuals in it, is directed by our Lord, empowered by his Spirit, and readied for our big day by the good deeds we do, deeds that are contrary to the self-indulgent spirit of the age, with its Babylon mentality. We are not like everybody else. We are different.

We have seen the Church as temple in which people meet God, as royal priesthood bringing God to people and people to him, as family, as Body through which Christ acts, as Kingdom of God colony on earth, and today as Christ’s forever bride. There is nothing like the church, no substitute for it, no alternative to it.

Yes, the church is partially paralyzed. It doesn’t wear its good deeds well. It is awkward and unsightly. But the King has chosen the Church and he will heal it. To remain outside of it is incalculable loss. Love the Church – Christ does. Be a part of the Church. Help her ready herself for her big day.


[1] Larry Helyer

[2] Eugene H. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (Eerdmans, 2005), p. 288.

[3] Helyer, p. 247.

[4] This We Believe: The Good News of Jesus Christ for the World, (Zondervan) p. 222

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