The Lamb and His Bride
After a somewhat extended break, we’re returning this evening to the book of Revelation to begin the last four chapters.
The section immediately preceding our text unveiled God’s judgment against the second great enemy of the church — Rome. Imperial Rome had conquered the world and, therefore, had come to believe that it was the greatest kingdom in the universe. And if Rome was the greatest kingdom, the Roman emperor was the greatest king. As was common in the ancient world, these emperors believed themselves to be incarnate deity. Augustus, for example, titled his memoirs “The Deeds of the Divine Augustus,” and had them inscribed on bronze tablets to be mounted on the outside of his mausoleum. So, not only did Rome believe that it was a greater empire than the kingdom of Christ, but also that the emperor as a greater king than the Lord Jesus Christ.
But Rome was nothing but a harlot. It pretended to have heaven’s favor, but it did not. In the previous two chapters God judged and condemned this harlot. And now, by way of the sharpest possible contrast, the Lamb of God takes his true bride, adorned in the purest white linen. These two things go together. The kingdom of Christ advances by destroying the kingdom of the devil.
The events in tonight’s text parallel similar events at the end of chapter 11. Both are victory songs. Yet, they celebrate different triumphs. In chapter 11 the hosts of heaven rejoiced in the Lamb’s conquest of his first enemy, viz., pagan Jews. Here they rejoice in his success over his second enemy, viz., pagan Rome.
The Worship of Heaven
Our text begins with a great multitude in heaven praising God for punishing the pretentious whore.
Of course, the whore deserved every bit of the judgment that she received. In previous sermons, we examined her many sins and saw that they were almost overwhelming. Here in verse 2 John gives us just a brief reminder. She was guilty of two things. She had corrupted the earth with her fornication (πορνεία), i.e., her false religion, and she was guilty of the blood of God’s people. Both of these crimes are described in greater detail earlier in Revelation.
However, the rejoicing of the saints, as we’ve seen before, was not so much over the death and destruction of God’s enemy as it was for the righteousness of God that was revealed in that judgment. Notice that the emphasis of their praise in verse 1 was on the salvation, glory, honor and power of God that had been demonstrated in God’s dealings with the whore. In fact, the church attributed its entire deliverance, the avenging of the saints’ blood and the protection of the church solely to God. It took note of what God had done for his people and then praised him for it. And in verse 2 the church recognized that God’s judgments in this matter were completely true and righteous.
They could also see the impact of this judgment far into the future. The fact that the whore was judged meant that the church could move forward. It meant that the gospel would penetrate every nation under the sun, and that the kingdom of Christ would conquer not only Rome, which considered itself practically invincible, but all the kingdoms of the earth. And you can see that the saints understood this in verse 6. There they praised God for his sovereign reign.
As the saints praised the perfect justice of God’s ways, they filled their praise with alleluias. Their first alleluia is in verse 1, followed by a second one in verse 3. The twenty-four elders added their alleluia at the end of verse 4, and finally the great multitude praised God with one last alleluia in verse 6. Alleluia is, of course, a transliteration of the Hebrew word hallelujah, which means “Praise the Lord!”
In the Old Testament, hallelujah is not as common as we might think. It occurs mostly as either the very first line and/or the very last line of several Psalms (cf. Pss. 104–106, 111–113, 115–116, 135, 146–150). In the New Testament it’s even rarer. In fact, the four instances of it that we have in our text are the only times it appears in the entire New Testament. It seems that the Holy Spirit purposely reserved this word just for the judgment of the great whore. Why? Because in this judgment all the nations of the world learn that God really is in charge. His kingdom is greater than any kingdom man could ever build. In fact, one commentator even says that the four alleluias in our text give it “appearance of OT battle prayers.” God engaged his enemy. He won. And then the heavenly hosts praised him for his marvelous victory.
The twenty-four elders and the four beasts fell down and worshiped God in verse 4. It doesn’t seem that the elders initiated the choruses of praise in the first three verses. Rather, the people of God responded spontaneously to God’s mighty deliverance. This, too, was a reason for the elders to praise God. When they saw that the brethren delighted themselves in the worship of God, they didn’t delay to include their praise as well. Their amen affirmed all that the heavenly hosts had said, and their alleluia recognized that the one who sits on the throne has done great things for his people.
The amazing thing about all of this is that the praise that we find in our text continues even now. We join our voices with the hosts of heaven — angels and redeemed men — every time we celebrate God’s triumph over sin, Satan and death through the mighty work of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Marriage of the Lamb
As the heavenly host praised God, a voice came from the throne commanding them to continue their praise (v. 5). In fact, it instructed all of God’s servants, those who fear him, whether great or small, to join in.
Since the voice came from the throne, we might expect it to be God’s voice. It is not. Nor is it the voice of the Lamb of God. If it had been either of these, the pronouns would have been different. It would have said, “Praise your God, all my servants,” or something in that vein. No, the most likely source for the voice is the angel mentioned in the first verse of chapter 17, who was probably one of the pastors of the seven churches of Asia Minor. This angel is the one who had invited John to come and behold the judgment of the great whore. If this is correct, it would also fit in with verse 10. When John prostrated himself before the one who was speaking, he was told not to do so because they were fellowservants and brethren in the gospel ministry.
The response to the command to praise God was beyond imagination. It was greater than the Hallelujah chorus of Handel’s Messiah, which is based on this very passage. John wrote, And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth (v. 6). The multiplication of metaphors — water and thundering — seems to indicate that God’s praise was even louder here than it was in the first verse. But what’s even more fascinating is that those who offer the praise are the very ones who have been rescued from what the harlot formerly considered her territory. Do you remember how she was first described? The first time we met her, we were told that she sat upon many waters (Rev. 17:1), i.e., that she governed a vast area, including people from countless backgrounds. Verse 15 of that chapter says, The waters which thou sawest, where the whore sitteth, are peoples, and multitudes, and nations, and tongues (v. 15). But now the many waters sing songs of praise to God.
We knew this would be so. In the first chapter, John described also Christ as having a voice that sounded like many waters (Rev. 1:15). This shows that the people of the earth were his to begin with. They never really belonged to the whore.
In fact, the whore never really had any power at all. The KJV translates the saints’ praise in verse 6 as the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. The word reigneth is present tense in English and emphasizes the fact that God was reigning at the time the saints praised him. If it’s understood in a narrow sense, it doesn’t indicate whether he reigned before then or not. But the Greek verb that’s used here is actually past tense (ἐβασίλευσεν). Literally, the saints were praising God for having reigned. He reigned when the dragon persecuted the woman and her child. He reigned when the great whore committed her crimes against heaven, including the murder of his saints. He reigned when he condemned the whore to unending punishment. The point is that his reign is eternal. He reigns once and for all. And this is probably closer to what the KJV translators had in mind.
How, then, do we explain the martyrs mentioned in the book of Revelation? Does God’s sovereign kingship mean that there should be no more persecutions? No, persecutions will arise from time to time. This is not because God is not in control, but because he is. Remember, he reigned even when the dragon persecuted his Son. So, the church will often be cast into turmoil by the evil schemes of ungodly men. Satan’s normal routine is to try to undermine the advancement of Christ’s kingdom and glory on earth. But, praise God, the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Because of this, we know that God’s purposes for the church in Christ Jesus must prevail. The omnipotent God works in and through his people to make it so, and your confidence is that the Son of man walks among the seven golden candlesticks.
Now that the ungodly whore has been judged, it’s time for the Lamb to take his bride. Verse 7 announces that the marriage of the Lamb is come. Ironically, though, the marriage is not actually described in our text. Instead John observed two things: the clothing of the bride and the blessedness of those who come to the marriage supper.
According to verse 7, the bride made herself ready by putting on her finest wedding dress. But verse 8 immediately adds that this was not something that she had the power to do all by herself. She could put on the wedding dress only because it was granted that she should be arrayed in fine linen. A gift from God supplied her with her clothes as well as the ability to wear them.
The bride, of course, is the church of Jesus Christ, but what are the wedding garments that the church must put on? The end of verse 8 identifies them as the righteousness of saints.
Roman Catholic commentators turn to this passage to support their doctrine of the Treasury of the Saints. They believe that the “saints” (the elite few who have been tried and canonized by the church) did more good deeds than the actually needed. God put their extra good works in a collection, known as the Treasury. The pope has the power to withdraw these extra works to give to the church. Accordingly, the white wedding garments symbolize the extra good deeds of the saints given to the church.
Protestants, of course, reject the notion of the Treasury of the Saints and its presupposition that men can perform good deeds above and beyond the call of duty. And so we find comments on this passage like the following: “This plainly does not designate the good deeds and virtuous actions, simply or principally, of the saints; for it is something given to them.” In other words, the white garments can’t be the practical righteousness of believers because they’re a gift from God. So, where do these commentators think practical righteousness comes from? Ephesians 2:10 says that it is just as much a gift as is the righteousness of justification. Paul wrote, For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them.
And further, this seems to agree with other Scriptures that speak of God’s purpose to prepare a holy bride for Christ by the continuous, daily application of the Word of God. For example, Ephesians 5:25–27 says, Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. And likewise, Paul wrote in II Corinthians 11:2, For I am jealous over you with godly jealousy: for I have espoused you to one husband, that I may present you as a chaste virgin to Christ.
The adornment of the bride, then, requires both a gift of grace and the reception of that gift. It calls for God to act (Col. 1:22; Eph. 5:26) and man to respond (I Tim. 4:16; I John 3:3). God gives us the gifts of faith and good works, but he doesn’t believe for us or do the good works that he has prepared for us to do. We must believe and we must obey.
Following this, the one speaking to John commands him to write, Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb. The marriage supper will be an eternal feasting with the Lord. It begins when we first believe, continues throughout our earthly life, and ultimately brings us to unimaginable glory in days to come. And we can only experience these unimaginable blessings if we are part of the bride of Christ by trusting his shed blood.
John and the Angel
The messenger also announced to John that the things he had just seen and heard, i.e., the entire revelation of God’s judgment against the great whore (Rev. 17:1–19:9), are the true sayings of God.
With this, John fell down at the feet of the messenger, obviously overwhelmed by the magnificence of the vision. When he first saw the harlot drunk with the blood of the saints and martyrs, he wondered with great admiration (Rev. 17:6). Here his response went far beyond that.
It wasn’t uncommon in the ancient world, especially in eastern countries, for men to fall at the feet of their superiors in consideration of their superiority. If that were the case here, there would have been no problem. But apparently something more was involved.
First, the fact that the messenger instructed John to worship God and not himself suggests that John’s prostration was not merely respect for a superior, but divine worship. God’s law forbids us to offer such worship to any creature, even if that creature is an angel or messenger of God.
Second, the messenger denies that he is in any way superior to John. Rather, he was John’s equal both in office and in nature. By nature both were men. They were fellowservants (σύνδουλος) and brethren (τῶν ἀδελφῶν σου). He was probably, as I said before, one of the angels of the seven churches, i.e., a pastor of one of the churches in Asia Minor for whom Revelation was originally written. By office both had the responsibility to proclaim the testimony of Jesus, i.e., they were both gospel heralds. As the last phrase in verse 10 says, they both testified to Jesus in accord with the witness of the Spirit to Christ. It was their job to make known that God has made Jesus Savior, King of kings and Lord of lords.
In the end, this passage is really about the relationship between the Lamb and his bride. Particularly, it teaches the bride — us — what our responsibility toward the Lamb is.
Now, we could go to the fifth chapter of Ephesians, where the relationship between Christ and the church is the model for Christian marriage. But in some ways Revelation 19:1–10 is even more direct.
What is that relationship? Well, let’s review what we’ve seen. First, the church is to praise Jesus Christ. Our praise is the result of his salvation, and since he has saved all his people, each believer has the duty before God to join in that praise. Second, the church, having been saved, must also adorn itself with the righteousness of saints, pictured in our text as white wedding garments. That is, we must walk worthily of our high calling in Christ, submitting ourselves to the will of God in all things. And third, we must remember that God alone is worthy of the praise of both our lips and our lives. Even those who bring the good news to us must not be venerated in the place of Jesus Christ. And if ordinary ministers should not be worshiped, neither should angels, “saints” or even the virgin Mary.
Beloved, take note of the special benediction that God gives to you: Blessed are they which are called unto the marriage supper of the Lamb. Amen.