Revelation 10 & 11 describe the two-part interlude preceding the seventh trumpet. This interlude finally reveals the contents of the scroll initially shown in Revelation 5. So what is this scroll? The scroll reveals the way in which the Lamb’s victory will be made effective upon the earth. It reveals how God’s kingdom will come from heaven to earth because of Jesus’ triumph.
More specifically, the scroll reveals how Christ’s apprentices are to participate in the coming of God’s kingdom by following him and embodying his witness, sacrifice and victory.
The first part of the interlude focuses on John’s prophetic ministry and the second part focuses on Christ’s followers’ prophetic ministry.
When we first encounter the sealed scroll in chapter 5, it is revealed by a “mighty angel.” Now in chapter 10, another “mighty angel” brings the opened scroll to John. Revelation 4, 5 & 10 closely parallel Ezekiel 1-3. In that passage, Ezekiel receives his prophetic call via a vision of God’s throne room. This vision prepares him to receive a prophetic message from God, which he in turn must deliver to Israel. The prophetic message comes to Ezekiel in the form of a sealed scroll with writing on both sides. God opens the scroll and Ezekiel is instructed to eat it. Ezekiel obeys, symbolically absorbing and embodying the divine message that he will communicate.
As John sees God upon the throne and ultimately ingests the open scroll, his visions validate his prophetic ministry in a manner similar to Ezekiel’s. The main difference is that God doesn’t open the scroll, Jesus does. So the scroll is taken from God’s hand by the Lamb, who opens it. It is then taken from heaven to earth by an angel, who gives it to John to eat (c.f. Revelation 1:1-3). So the Revelation comes from God, to Jesus, to an angel, to John, and finally to the Church.
So everything that has occurred from Revelation 1 to 10 has been in preparation for the actual revealing of the scroll – how God’s kingdom will come to earth.
Why the delay in the revelation of the scroll until after the sixth trumpet? Simply, it flows naturally with the rest of the book. The seals binding the scroll are opened in preparation for revealing its contents – human kingdoms run rampant, the subsequent oppression of God’s people and God’s imminent judgment upon this evil. These seals then transition into warning-judgments upon human empire – judgments similar to the plagues that fell upon Egypt. These judgments have the intention of producing repentance in rebellious humanity. By the sixth trumpet, however, it is clear that these divine judgments alone do not produce repentance (Revelation 9:20-21).
The failure of the judgments to produce repentance is why the seven thunders (most likely another series of more severe warning-judgments) are aborted. What follows is the revealing of the scroll’s contents, then followed by a greater description of the ensuing conflict, lastly followed by the final series of judgments that ultimately destroy evil and fully usher God’s kingdom to earth.
The scroll unfolds what is truly necessary to bring the nations to repentance – the faithful witness of Jesus’ apprentices in conjunction with God’s judgments. This is not a small thing. God’s powerful judgments are unable to produce repentance. Instead, it is the cooperative work of his people, as we imitate Christ, that draws the nations back to God.
The scroll reveals that it is the faithful witness and sacrificial deaths of God’s people, in the midst of hostility and violence, that will be instrumental in the conversion of the nations back to God. The life and death of the Church is the salvation of the nations! As we saw in Revelation 8, God’s messianic army is a multitude redeemed from the nations and given a robe of martyrdom. Revelation 11 reveals that this has been done in order that they bear prophetic witness back to the nations. The Lamb’s army has been redeemed from the nations to witness to the nations.
The two witnesses symbolizes the Church’s faithful witness to the nations (they are described as lampstands, the symbol of the Church in Revelation 1). John uses two witnesses in this image because of the biblical legal requirement that evidence must be established by at least two witness.
We must keep in mind that this vision is not a literal event. Rather, it is a prophetic parable dramatizing the nature of the Church’s ministry on the earth. Like Elijah and Moses, the Church will faithfully embody the truth and power of God in the midst of hostile rebellion. But the Church’s ministry will surpass that of Elijah and Moses because it will be faithful even unto sacrificial death like the Lamb. And God will use the Church’s faithful witness to convert rebellious humanity. This vision demonstrates the Church’s faithfulness to Jesus’ witness by dramatically linking its vindication (the Church’s resurrection and exaltation) with Jesus’ vindication (his resurrection and exaltation). This is another way of saying, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you” (John 20:21). The Church is God’s instrument as it continues to embody Jesus’ life and witness and participate in his death (i.e. in the blood of the Lamb). But our power does not come from our own strength. Our life and witness draws power from Jesus’ life and witness.
The results of the Church’s witness are remarkable! First, an earthquake strikes rebellious humanity as another judgment. But for John’s readers, who are steeped in Old Testament imagery, the results are startling. In the Old Testament, a tenth part (Is 6:13; Amos 5:3) or seven thousand people (1 Kings 19:18) are usually spared as the faithful remnant. But John reverses this. Rather than nine-tenths perishing, only a tenth suffers judgment. In other words, the faithless majority are spared so that they may come to repentance! It is as if the Church’s faithful witness blankets humanity with grace so the majority are spared judgment in order that they may repent.
Following the earthquake, the seventh angel sounds his trumpet, followed by a remarkable declaration, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Rev 11:15). Because of the Church’s faithful and powerful witness of embodying the way, truth and life of Jesus, the kingdom is spilling over from heaven to earth! And rebellious humanity is repenting and being renewed under the banner of God’s leadership.
Because it is the Church’s faithful witness that is instrumental in accomplishing God’s plan of bringing his kingdom to earth, it is essential to discuss what that witness looks like. First, it has repentance as its central theme. The two witnesses are clothed in sackcloth, symbolic of repentance. The Church’s witness must be an invitation, like the one offered by Jesus in the Gospels, to examine one’s ruined life in contrast to a new life in God’s kingdom. It is an invitation to lay down one’s self-destructive agenda and enter into a new life constituted around the ever-living Christ.
Second, the Church witness remains faithful to the entire biblical narrative. It’s not a mere coincidence that John chooses Moses and Elijah as representative of the Church’s witness. They represent the full story of God’s people, now climaxed in Christ and being implemented afresh by Jesus’ people. Their story is our story. And it is in the midst of this story that the Church’s witness finds its power.
I personally believe that the Church’s witness finds expression in four avenues. In these four ways, the followers of Christ plant flags of God’s kingdom in enemy territory. First, we express God’s truth through our own personal spiritual formation into Christ’s likeness. Christ coaches and teaches us to deny the inward core of our ruined and distorted lives so that we may embrace a new life. Christ’s likeness in our lives is the human expression of the New Creation!
Second, we incarnate Jesus’ presence through authentic community. Jesus stated that he is present when two or more gather in his name. This applies to far more than worship services, prayer gatherings and committee meetings. This is a description of koinonia, the sharing and participating in one another’s lives. As we build communities of love that model Jesus’ love, Jesus is embodied and made known upon the earth.
Third, we declare God’s truth via social justice, challenging injustice and oppression at all levels throughout the world. God’s kingdom coming to earth is God making things right. It is his renewing of all that is damaged. This was inaugurated by Jesus, who reconciled everything in earth and heaven back to God, and is now implemented by his apprentices as we engage all forms of brokenness in the world.
Fourth, we embody God’s truth as we create. We are God’s image-bearers, created to be co-creators who continue to invent and nurture new forms of goodness and beauty from the raw materials of life on planet earth. So whether it is science, writing, dance, music, painting, numbers, study, space, etc., we are to engage life as an artist’s studio in which we create masterpieces of love, joy, peace and compassion.
And for the Church to be powerfully faithful to God’s truth, all of us must engage all four avenues of witness. The Christian vocation is to follow Jesus into the personal embodiment of his character and power, the life of authentic loving community, the implementation of social justice, and the continual creation and nurturing of goodness upon the earth.