Pastor Scott Andrews | May 28, 2023
It all started in the Garden of Eden. God had created a perfect world with a perfect environment, perfect people, meaning no sin, no curse…yet. He planted a garden in Eden, which would undoubtedly make any botanical garden today look like an unkempt desert. He placed His image-bearers, Adam and Eve, in the Garden as His vice-regents, responsible to tend the Garden and enjoy the fruits of their labor. Do whatever you want – it’s all yours, for your fulfillment and joy – and, for My glory. Only one prohibition – you may eat of the fruit of any tree except the one in the middle of the garden – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. On the day that you eat of that tree, you will die.
We don’t know how long they were in the garden – days, weeks, months. But one day, along came the deceiver, the enemy of God and His image-bearers, the serpent of old, Satan himself. And he deceived Eve. How? By questioning God, His character and His commands. By getting Eve to question His commands, to assume unwarranted, soul-crushing, world-ruining sovereignty, and denying any accountability to the Creator. Personal anarchy – I answer to no one but me. Did God really say…? Questioning His commands. You will not surely die. Questioning accountability. God knows that on the day that you eat, your eyes will be opened, you will be like God, knowing good from evil. Questioning His character. That’s heady, as people have always wanted to be like Him – and thereby be their own gods.
And so Satan has been deceiving people with the same lies ever since. Jesus called him the father of lies, reminding us he’s been a liar since the beginning. Meaning, He’s good at it – he’s had lots of practice. Today, this deception takes on the following three forms (broad brush strokes): questioning His reality, questioning His sovereignty, and therefore, questioning any coming judgment and our accountability to Him.
Questioning His reality goes like this. One of the fastest growing belief systems in our country today, especially among younger generations, is not theism – belief in a god, even a false one. No, it is atheism. There is no God – He is the stuff of myth, legend – like unicorns and leprechauns. Of course, denying the existence of God means we can pursue whatever we want – after all, there’s no one to whom we are accountable. Do you see the connection? Atheism allows for guiltless sinful pursuits. We become like God; we actually become our own gods. Don’t miss it – to deny His existence is to free us to live however we want.
Further, questioning His sovereignty/supremacy takes on several forms – not the least of which is simply inventing other gods – more to our liking. The world is full of false gods. Now, false religions may teach an accountability to their gods, but in so doing, they deny accountability to the true and living God – to His character which drives His commands, and His way and only way of salvation. I’ll get there my own way, thank you very much.
And so, humanity lives in blissful, sinful, self-imposed, God-denying ignorance. One day, addressing this issue, the Apostle Paul found himself on Mars Hill, the Areopagus in Athens. There, as he wandered about, he found idols to every imaginable, made-up god. You see, atheism, polytheism and false gods are nothing new. We read about it in Acts 17. Look at what he said to the Athenians, which is quite appropriate for today’s religious climate:
22 So Paul stood in the midst of the Areopagus and said, “Men of Athens, I observe that you are very religious in all respects.
23 “For while I was passing through and examining the objects of your worship, I also found an altar with this inscription, ‘TO AN UNKNOWN GOD.’ Therefore what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.
24 “The God who made the world and all things in it, since He is Lord of heaven and earth, does not dwell in temples made with hands; [you see, the Areopagus, Mars Hill, was right below the Acropolis, with all its grand temples built to the Greek gods]
25 nor is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things;
26 and He made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined their appointed times and the boundaries of their habitation,
27 that they would seek God, if perhaps they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us;
28 for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we also are His children.’
29 “Being then the children of God [that is, His image-bearers], we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and thought of man.
30 “Therefore having overlooked the times of ignorance, God is now declaring to men that all people everywhere should repent, [that is, turn from their ignorance and their sin]
31 because He has fixed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness through a Man whom He has appointed, having furnished proof to all men by raising Him from the dead.”
What a gospel presentation. Let me take a brief aside here, and listen to me very carefully. If you know what we just read, then you know enough to share your faith with unbelievers. There is a place apologetics – I’m a fan – but you don’t have to know all the answers to their silly, skeptical questions and objections. You’re not going to save them anyway. It will take the sovereign work of the Spirit of God to convert them – to bring them from death to life. You simply need to know, there is a Creator, He made us in His image, we rebelled against Him, but He did something about it by sending His own Son to die on a cross for sinners, and proved it by raising Him from the dead, and one day, God will judge the world through this Man. You are accountable to Him – so repent. There you go, there’s the gospel.
Because there is coming a day when judgment will fall from the One to whom all are accountable. Don’t believe the deceptions and the lies. Judgment is coming, and we read about it in the text in our ongoing study of Revelation. In chapter 19, we saw Jesus return at the second coming. The battle of Armageddon was waged, Christ was victorious, and the Antichrist and the False Prophet were cast into the lake of fire – forever.
Which brought us to chapter 20 last week and the most divisive of all texts – the Millennial Kingdom. I taught it from a futurist perspective with a premillennial return of Christ followed by His earthly reign in the Millennium. At the beginning of the chapter – the dragon, the serpent of old who is the devil and Satan is bound and thrown into the abyss – locked and sealed for 1,000 years, give or take. All people will then enjoy – well, at least experience – the perfect and righteous reign of Christ. Kind of interesting – just like in the Garden at the beginning of time. God actually walked with His people – true, it was only Adam and Eve – but He walked with them daily. And when Satan showed up, they followed him.
Same thing happens at the end of time as we know it. Satan is bound, people experience the rule of God in the person of Jesus for 1,000 years. It will be wonderful and perfect. Satan is loosed, and people flock to him by the hordes in rebellion. The action demonstrates the depth and power of total depravity, and the necessity for divine, eternal judgment. Judgment is coming.
Why would Adam and Eve disobey God in a perfect environment? Why would people rebel against God under Christ’s perfect reign? Why do people throughout the end of time as God pours out His judgments refuse to repent? Why do people refuse to repent today? Because, they believe the lies, and choose rather to be their own gods and live how they want. And so, what is the end of such rebellion – not only for those who rebel at the end of time, but those who continue in their rebellion today? A most troubling of texts, Revelation 20:11-15.
After his release from the abyss and his ultimate, final defeat, Satan will be cast into the lake of fire, where he will suffer torment forever and ever. Which brings us to the final judgment of the Bible, and the final judgment of all time. You see, Satan’s judgment is in a sense penultimate; the judgment of unbelievers who follow him is ultimate. After this text, all sinful rebellion will be judged and evil forever banished.
I’m glad to report there is only a little controversy in this text – largely regarding who will stand before the great white throne. I’ll cover that in a moment, but of the end of the judgment of the unrighteous, all conservative, biblical scholars agree. It is a stunning, startling, soul-shaking text. It should cause unbelievers to consider their lack of faith and their coming fate; it should cause believers to be more serious about our faith and more urgent and faithful in our witness.
Here’s the outline of the text as we make our way through it:
- The Judge (11)
- The Defendants (12a, 13a)
- The Judgment (12b, 13b)
- The Sentence (14-15)
In verse 11, John starts with those familiar words, then I saw, signaling a new vision. Again, as last week, I believe this is somewhat chronological – the last battle has happened in the previous verses, Satan has lost and been cast into the lake of fire. All that remains is the final judgment before we enter the new heaven and the new earth. One suggested this is the last courtroom scene – not only in the Bible, but of all time. And don’t miss – it is the courtroom scene of all time, with God as the judge, and people, at least all unbelievers if not more, on trial.
The first thing to greet John’s eyes is a great white throne. Many of you have heard of it before – it is, after all, the stuff of judgment houses and revival fire. The word throne is used almost fifty times in this book – it plays a central part. Except for one time referring to Satan’s throne in Pergamum, all other references are in heaven – of God’s throne, the Lamb’s throne, or the thrones of the 24 elders.
The first mention of God’s throne is in chapter 4, where we read of a throne standing in heaven, and One, whose magnificence almost defies description, is sitting on the throne. And out of the throne came flashes of lightning and peals of thunder. And before the throne was something like a sea of glass like crystal. And around this throne were the 24 elders sitting on their thrones, and the four living creatures, who cease not to say “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD God, the Almighty, who was and who is and who is to come.” At which point the 24 elders fall down before Him who sits on the throne, casting their crowns, saying, “Worthy are You, our Lord and our God, to receive glory and honor and power; for You created all things, and because of Your will they existed and were created.” Sounds a little like what Paul said on Mars Hill.
And in chapter 5, John saw in the right hand of Him who sat on the throne a book, sealed with seven seals. A strong angel proclaimed with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the book and to breaks its seals?” And between the throne and the four living creatures was a lamb standing as if slain. He alone is worthy to take the book, and the four living creatures and the 24 elders sang a new song, saying, “Worthy are You to take the book and to break its seals; for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation.”
And surrounding all that, with the throne at the center, were many angels, the number of which is myriads of myriads. And they cry with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.” Then every living creature on the earth and under the earth cry out, “To Him who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb, be blessing and honor and glory and dominion forever and ever.”
Is it any wonder that this throne is the great throne – it is magnificent, and there is no other like it. It is enormous, and all others pale in comparative significance. It is white, which speaks of its purity, righteousness, and justice again, like no other.
And John simply says, I saw Him who sat on it. How would you describe One so magnificent. He is so great, that at this appearance, the earth and the heaven – that is, all creation, fled away. They could not stand in His awesome presence. There is something about this appearance that causes flight for all creation. And yet, there was no place found for them. You see, God is omnipresent – everywhere present, causing the Psalmist to say, where can I go from Your Spirit, where can I flee from Your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, [that is, the underworld, the place of the dead] You are there. If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, You are even there. Where can I go that You are not?
Now some suggest this fleeing is actually an uncreation – that all the old creation is dissolved and burned up. After all, 21:1 says, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away.” There’s a little disagreement on this part – is the old heaven and earth completely eradicated, destroyed to make way for a new heaven and new earth; or does God recreate the old heaven and old earth. I’ll let you decide.
Now, the question is, who is this One sitting on the throne? Obviously, we know it’s God, but is it the Father, or is it the Son? You see, every other time this throne is mentioned in the book of Revelation, it seems to be the Father sitting on His throne – the idea expresses His sovereignty. And yet 22:1 speaks of the throne of God and of the Lamb. Now, while people have wanted to throw off His yoke and His control; while they have wanted to think themselves accountable to no one except themselves, they will stand before this enthroned One to give an account, just like Paul said.
Now, why do some suggest this must be Jesus? Because there are several references that say that the Father has granted all judgment to the Son – that in fact, the Father will judge no one – that the Son will be the judge. Consider Daniel 7, from which this text is undoubtedly based:
9 “I kept looking
Until thrones were set up,
And the Ancient of Days took His seat;
His vesture was like white snow
And the hair of His head like pure wool.
His throne was ablaze with flames,
Its wheels were a burning fire.
10 “A river of fire was flowing
And coming out from before Him;
Thousands upon thousands were attending Him,
And myriads upon myriads were standing before Him;
The court sat,
And the books were opened.”
Drop down to verse 13:
13 “I kept looking in the night visions,
And behold, with the clouds of heaven
One like a Son of Man was coming,
And He came up to the Ancient of Days
And was presented before Him.
14 “And to Him was given dominion,
Glory and a kingdom,
That all the peoples, nations and men of every language
Might serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
Which will not pass away;
And His kingdom is one
Which will not be destroyed.”
All agree this is a clear reference to Jesus as the Son of Man being granted authority over the nations. From that develops the idea in the NT that God, in giving Jesus authority and dominion over the nations includes the coming judgment. Jesus Himself said so in John 5:
21 “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes.
22 “For not even the Father judges anyone, but He has given all judgment to the Son,
23 so that all will honor the Son even as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him.
24 “Truly, truly, I say to you, he who hears My word, and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life, and does not come into judgment, but has passed out of death into life.
25 “Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming and now is, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live.
26 “For just as the Father has life in Himself, even so He gave to the Son also to have life in Himself;
27 and He gave Him authority to execute judgment, because He is the Son of Man.
28 “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice,
29 and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.
That’s Revelation 20. So, the Father has granted all judgment to the Son. And He will judge all people, as we see in our text, according to their deeds. Again, the question is, who are these standing before the throne? That brings us to the defendants in the first part of verses 12 and 13. And this is where there is some disagreement, surprise, surprise. The question is, who stands before the great white throne. Is it all people of all time, or is it only the unrighteous, unbelievers?
You see, if you hold the postmillennial or amillennial position, then all people stand before the throne in judgment at this point. You’ll remember the amillennial position says the millennium extends from the first coming of Christ to the second coming, that is, the millennium is happening right now in heaven. Further, they say the first resurrection back in verse 5 is when people come to faith in Jesus Christ – they are born again, raised from spiritual death to spiritual life. And therefore, the second resurrection is when all people are physically raised to life – that is, their bodies are raised, and the judgment of all people happens. The postmillennial position is somewhat the same, but they say the millennium is still future when the gospel successfully permeates the earth and most people are saved, and then Christ comes and there is a resurrection of all people at the second coming for judgment.
Well, some of that – at least the amillennial position – makes sense to me. But you’ll remember that I taught a premillennial position last week. That is, Jesus comes back at the second coming and all the righteous are raised physically – that is the first resurrection, which is why John says blessed are those who take part in the first resurrection. Incidentally, the word resurrection always refers to coming to life, being raised physically from the dead.
Then, there is a thousand-year reign, and a final rebellion when Satan is loosed, at which time he is defeated and cast into the lake of fire. There is then a second resurrection in verses 11-15. If all the righteous were raised in the first resurrection, then all those at the second resurrection who stand before the great white throne are the unrighteous, unbelievers. There are variations – I won’t get into that. I generally hold this as a judgment of the unrighteous, but I hold it loosely.
Now look at the text. John writes in verse 12, “And I saw the dead, the great and the small, standing before the throne.” Then verse 13, “And the sea gave up the dead which were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead which were in them.”
The point seems to simply be this – there are no exceptions to those who will stand before the great white throne for judgment. It doesn’t matter how great you are in the minds of people, or how small or insignificant you are – all will stand before God in judgment. Notice, the sea gave up their dead. Understand, the sea was thought to be a place of destruction and chaos – those lost at sea were lost forever. Not so – even the sea gave up their dead. So did death and Hades – personifications. Death awaits everyone, so everyone who has died is to stand before the throne. Hades is the NT term for Sheol, the place of the dead.
Leading to our third point, how are these people judged? Verse 12 – the books were opened; and another book was opened, which is the book of life; and the dead were judged from the things written in the books, according to their deeds. Verse 13 says the same thing. So there are books which contain all the thoughts, words and deeds of those to be judged. If you hold there is only one judgment of all people – then both believers and unbelievers will be judged by their works. Every hidden thought, every idle word, every lawless deed.
But the difference is this – all those lawless deeds committed by believers have been atoned – paid for, by the blood of the Lamb. You see, there is another book – the book of life, which very importantly, chapter 13 calls the book of life of the Lamb. And Jesus purchased by His blood a people for Himself. He paid for their sins. And so, if believers are at this judgment, there will be other works recorded which are the result of being blood-bought by the Lamb. You do good works as proof of salvation. There will be good deeds, and rewarded. To be perfectly clear – it is not the good deeds that earn your name to be written in the book of life – it is your name being written in the book of life that results in good deeds, proving that you have been redeemed.
Of course, if you hold that this judgment is for unbelievers, then the deeds recorded in the books will demonstrate their guilt, and the absence of their names written in the book of life will result in their eternal condemnation.
Which brings us quickly to the sentence in verses 14-15. Verse 14 again personifies death and Hades, saying that these will be thrown into the lake of fire, meaning they will be no more problem for people. The next chapter tells us, there will no longer be any death. No longer will there be a place of confinement for the dead. Paul said it this way, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death” – and here, we see the promise fulfilled.
But verse 15 says, if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. This is the sentence – the second, never-ending death. Despite what many would have you believe, being cast into the lake of fire does not result in annihilation – ceasing to exist – nor does the lake of fire itself not exist. Many today want to suggest that there is no literal hell, that in the end, love wins, and all will be forgiven and in heaven. This is not the teaching of Scripture. We’ve already seen that when the unholy trinity – Satan, the Antichrist and the False Prophet – are thrown into the lake of fire, they will be tormented day and night forever and ever. Jesus said that the righteous will go to eternal life, but the unrighteous to eternal punishment.
I know these are hard words, but just as those who opposed God last week deserved eternal punishment, so also do those who oppose God this week, who refuse to repent, who refuse to bow to their Creator and Lord, deserve eternal punishment.
And so, from here we go to the new heaven and the new earth over these next few weeks. And all will be great, except for those who don’t believe. And so, for unbelievers who continue in sin and rebellion, I hope you have been shaken to your core when you realize Him with whom you have to do – and He is not messing around. Judgment is coming. For believers, I hope we gain a sense of urgency in the command to fulfill the Great Commission – to share our faith with unbelievers so they can share our fate – and not this one.