Missions: Bittersweet

Dr. Kim Riddlebarger helps explain Revelation 10:

But this scene in Revelation 10 ends with a dramatic turn of events, which harkens us back to the prophets of old. In verse 8, John informs us, that “then the voice that I had heard from heaven spoke to me once more:`Go, take the scroll that lies open in the hand of the angel who is standing on the sea and on the land.’” Doing as he is instructed, John says “I went to the angel and asked him to give me the little scroll. He said to me, `Take it and eat it. It will turn your stomach sour, but in your mouth it will be as sweet as honey.’ I took the little scroll from the angel’s hand and ate it. It tasted as sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach turned sour. Then I was told, `You must prophesy again about many peoples, nations, languages and kings.’”

This scene is similar to Ezekiel’s commissioning the opening chapters of his prophecy, as we read in our Old Testament lesson (Ezekiel 2:1-3:11). Ezekiel had been commanded to prophesy against the people of Israel after they had rebelled against God. He was to take the scroll and eat it–symbolic of internalizing God’s word to his people–so that he might proclaim the word of blessing and curse in his office as God’s prophet. The eating of the scroll, which the prophet says was as sweet as honey, also involved the proclamation of bitter words of lament, warning and woe. The symbolism seen in the sweetness of the scroll and the words of blessing and curse it contained, is that Ezekiel is commanded to preach the blessings and the curses of the covenant to God’s covenant people, Israel. He is to preach that which is sweet–the promise of blessing and the gospel–as well as that word of woe, lament and warning, which is the Law and the threatened covenant curses for continued disobedience on the part of the nation and its people.

Much the same thing holds in John’s case here in Revelation 10, only John is to preach from the vantage point of fulfillment, since Christ has now come and revealed himself to be worthy to open the scroll, since he has, in fact, died for our sins and fulfilled all of the righteous requirements of the Law. But the bittersweet message found in the scroll that John is to eat is to be proclaimed to all of the nations. This means that John’s mission is extended from that mission given earlier to Ezekiel. Ezekiel was to preach to God’s disobedient covenant people, Israel. John, on the other hand, is to preach to the nations and to their kings, who are in the Book of Revelation almost always depicted as allied with the beast or at least, doing his bidding. Furthermore, John is to preach his bittersweet message to all kinds of people, in many different languages, which, of course, is a picture of the missionary endeavor of the church. As in the case of Ezekiel, the scroll is to be eaten by John and tastes sweet at first, but soon turns sour in his stomach. Why is this? There are two lines of explanation we need to flesh out. The first, which we have already discussed, is that the message John is internalize and to preach is bittersweet in nature. That is, the message given John and which he is to pass on to the churches contains both the word of blessing (the sweetness of the gospel), and a word which turns bitter (the demands of the Law and the sanctions which result when God’s law is broken). And since the message is given by the angel to John specifically so that it might be revealed to God’s people, the application for us becomes very clear.

While the seal and trumpet judgments roll across the earth during the last days, intensifying in ferocity as we get closer to the return of Jesus Christ, the church is to be about the business of proclaiming the Law and the gospel. Therefore, our divinely-appointed mission is to take the gospel to the nations. We are to proclaim this bittersweet word of law and gospel to everyone within our sphere of influence. It is one of our primary weapons against Satan, the beast, the harlot and all those who serve them. For the best way to expose the works of the Devil and frustrate his purposes is with the light of the truth.

But John’s message is bittersweet in a second way. John must reveal God’s word to the churches that the wrath of God is indeed coming upon the whole world through a cyclical series of judgments which culminate with the return of Jesus Christ. Although God’s people are sealed with the name of Christ and protected from his wrath as well as from those demonic forces unleashed from the abyss by the fallen angel, at times Christians will indeed face the Satanically empowered beast who wages war upon the Saints. Christians must also be on guard for the seductive ways of the harlot, who seeks to entice Christians way from their Lord. As we have seen, in addition to proclaiming the bittersweet word of law and gospel, God has reminded us that his judgments come forth against the earth, because he hears the prayers of his suffering Saints upon the earth. And when these prayers ascend before his throne, God acts to vindicate his people. Indeed, when the beast takes their lives from them, John says, the martyred saints come to life and reign with Christ for a thousand years. Therefore, we cannot be defeated, even if God calls us to suffer for Christ’s sake.

There are a number of texts elsewhere in the New Testament which speak of these same matters in ways we are more used to considering. The apostle Peter speaks to this matter in his second epistle when he writes,“For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them into gloomy dungeons to be held for judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the filthy lives of lawless men (for that righteous man, living among them day after day, was tormented in his righteous soul by the lawless deeds he saw and heard)— if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue godly men from trials and to hold the unrighteous for the day of judgment, while continuing their punishment”(2 Peter 2:4-9).

Paul also speaks of this same struggle in Ephesians 6:10-18, when he describes the Christian life in terms of proclaiming the gospel and the power of prayer. “Finally, be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power. Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. Therefore put on the full armor of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand. Stand firm then, with the belt of truth buckled around your waist, with the breastplate of righteousness in place, and with your feet fitted with the readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. In addition to all this, take up the shield of faith, with which you can extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.”

As the seal and trumpet judgments are brought against the earth during the days of tribulation, God’s people are to be about the business of preaching the Law and the gospel and praying that God’s will might be done on earth as it is in heaven. God not only knows how to protect those who are his, he has given us the weapons we need to face the Devil and all those allied with him–namely the Law and the gospel, along with prayer. In Revelation 10, John gives us a message of hope, all the while the nations rage and Satan seeks to do us ill. For the mighty angel with the scroll reminds us that not only does God protect us during the time of tribulation, he equips us to do battle. For he has given us his gospel, which John says, tastes as sweet as honey. For in Jesus Christ, God will never count our sins against us. And in Jesus Christ, God has sealed us as his own, ensuring that we need never fear his wrath. Amen!