(78) Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come – Revelation 4:8

After receiving the letters to the seven churches, John sees a door into heaven and is invited to “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this” (Revelation 4:1). He sees God on his throne in heaven surrounded by the four living creatures that Ezekiel saw who are praising God and saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come” (Revelation 4:8). Again John struggles to find words to describe what he is seeing. He is in the presence of the one who is ultimately worthy of all praise: “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being” (Revelation 4:11).

John then sees a series of events in heaven that impact the world. Seven seals are opened on a scroll, seven trumpets are sounded, seven bowls are poured out and each event is accompanied by disasters on the earth. In among the symbolic language we can see references to war, famine, disease, earthquakes, ecological disaster and death which come on the earth. Some would see this as events still to come in the future while others point out that these things have happened throughout history. The times when the world has been free from war are very rare. Famine has affected people throughout the ages as it does still today in Africa and other parts of the globe. In the fourteenth century a quarter of the population of Europe was wiped out by the plague. It seems that Revelation has been relevant from the time when John saw the vision until today.

The situation we face in the world, with so much pain and suffering, natural disasters and man’s inhumanity to man raises a big question about God. Where is he while all this suffering is going on? Revelation provides an answer to this question by looking at it from God’s perspective, not ours.

The main thing to note is that John sees God on the throne. He remains in control throughout. None of the disasters are allowed to come on the earth without his permission, and they are limited in their scope and duration. When Jesus was talking about the end times he said that, “If the Lord had not cut short those days, no one would survive” (Mark 13:20).

But if God is in control then why does he allow such things at all? Revelation talks about God’s wrath or anger being poured out on the earth. God’s anger is not a sudden burst of emotion like ours but is an expression of his steady, unyielding hatred of sin. He knows the damaging impact that sin has on those who commit it and on the others they affect. Worst of all, it destroys man’s relationship with God, robbing individuals of fulfilling their potential. God cannot ignore man’s wrongdoing and has to deal with those who break his laws. He is determined that the world will one day be perfect again.

But God is also slow to anger and compassionate. How can we reconcile this with the disasters in Revelation? Until Jesus returns, God is allowing time for everyone to respond to the offer he has made for us to repent and turn to him. When everything is comfortable we are inclined to ignore him, but pain and trouble brings our attention back to God. As C S Lewis wrote, “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world” (C S Lewis in The Problem of Pain). God’s purpose will be worked out through the troubles and John saw “a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne” (Revelation 7:9). God’s offer of salvation will be available to all peoples and some will respond from every group.

If we try and understand every symbol in Revelation we will lose sight of the main message of the book which is that, whatever is going on around us on earth, God is reigning in heaven and he is in control of what is happening on earth. We cannot expect to understand the detail of his purpose day by day but we can trust him, secure in our knowledge of the big picture.

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