Sermon: The Great White Throne Judgement: Revelation 20:11-15

Old Testament Reading: Daniel 12

“‘At that time shall arise Michael, the great prince who has charge of your people. And there shall be a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time. But at that time your people shall be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book. And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever. But you, Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book, until the time of the end. Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase.’ Then I, Daniel, looked, and behold, two others stood, one on this bank of the stream and one on that bank of the stream. And someone said to the man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the stream, ‘How long shall it be till the end of these wonders?’ And I heard the man clothed in linen, who was above the waters of the stream; he raised his right hand and his left hand toward heaven and swore by him who lives forever that it would be for a time, times, and half a time, and that when the shattering of the power of the holy people comes to an end all these things would be finished. I heard, but I did not understand. Then I said, ‘O my lord, what shall be the outcome of these things?’ He said, ‘Go your way, Daniel, for the words are shut up and sealed until the time of the end. Many shall purify themselves and make themselves white and be refined, but the wicked shall act wickedly. And none of the wicked shall understand, but those who are wise shall understand. And from the time that the regular burnt offering is taken away and the abomination that makes desolate is set up, there shall be 1,290 days. Blessed is he who waits and arrives at the 1,335 days. But go your way till the end. And you shall rest and shall stand in your allotted place at the end of the days.”” (Daniel 12, ESV)

New Testament Reading: Revelation 20:11-15

““Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:11–15, ESV)

Introduction

About a week ago our family was driving across town and we were listening to some bluegrass music. That’s probably not how you expected this sermon to begin. Also, I should probably explain why we were listening to bluegrass. Kalia and David are taking guitar lessons, McKenna is working on the ukulele, and I’m toying around with the mandolin. Bluegrass music is a good choice if you want to hear some inspirational finger picking. But as we were enjoying the music a song came on with some disturbing lyrics. In this song the artist was complaining about his upbringing within the church, and he was most direct about it. He was recalling how as a boy he heard often of the flames of hell while in church. He was hardly tall enough to see over the pew, he said, but to him the flames of hell seemed to be so high. According to his lyrics (whether it is true or not, I do not know) the threat of hell was used in that church to inspire good behavior in the children. Truth be told, the song was so cynical and negative towards the church that my first impulse was to turn it off, but instead I encouraged my kids to listen to the lyrics so that we could talk about them.

It seems to me that there is a ditch on both sides of the road when it comes to the subject of hell. 

I’m sure there are some churches talk constantly about it. In some churches you’ll hear a lot about the flames of hell but little of the cross of Christ; you’ll hear more about the wrath of God than his mercy and grace. And in some churches hell is discussed with such emotion and intensity and with such threatenings that you begin to wonder if the objective is only to produce fear. What a shame when the flames of hell are used to fear monger in order to promote morality, but not love for God through faith in Christ. Some churches, I’m sure, have fallen into the ditch on that side of the road.

But many churches today have slid into the ditch on the other side of the road. They are unwilling to say anything at all about hell. And if they do say something about hell, they minimize it in one way or another, or explain it away all together. I suspect they do it because they want the respect of the of the world. They hear songs like the one that we heard the other day and they feel ashamed of the doctrine of hell. They hear the voice of the critics and skeptics and the non-believing – they hear them belittle belief in hell as something superstitions, old-fashioned and unenlightened – and, instead of thinking carefully and biblically about the matter, they blush. They abandon the doctrine of hell, in part, because they they want the approval of the world.

Friends, we speak of hell because the scriptures speak of it, and we believe the scriptures to be true. We speak of hell because Christ himself spoke of it, and we believe Christ to be true. And if you believe Christ and the scriptures to be the word of God, the question becomes not, how could we speak of hell?, but how could we not? If we believe the word of God to be true, then how could we not warn of hell, for the scriptures warn of it. And so we say what the scriptures say, not to scare people to straighten up and live moral lives, but to warn of that which we believe to be true based upon our faith in God and his word. Our prayer is that men and women, boys and girls, would do more than be afraid, but that they would develop within themselves a true understanding of the severity of their sin, a holy reverence and fear of God, and a right understanding of Christ. Our prayer is that sinners would come to see the severity of their sin and what it deserves, to love God, to run to him trusting, not in their own righteousness, but in the atoning work and righteousness of Christ received by faith alone.

I understand that some (maybe many), after hearing what the scriptures have to say about hell, will still harden their hearts against God. Some, even after receiving teaching that is presented with much humility, winsomeness, and compassion – teaching delivered for all the right reasons – that is, to point people to Christ the Savior – will still harden their hearts against God. They will complain as this musician complained, saying, “it only made me afraid, and it drove me away”. And when they run from God they will also find some way to dismiss the thought of final judgement and eternal punishment. They will dismiss it as myth. They will demean it as superstitious. They will explain it away as something that Jesus himself would never have taught, for he is love. Brothers and sisters, we cannot control how men and women respond to what the scriptures say concerning the future and final judgement. But we can be faithful to say what the scriptures say. And we can also pray that the Spirit of God would use the word of God to produce a godly and holy kind of fear in the hearer – one that causes the sinner to see his or her sin for what it is – an atrocious offense against the God who made them – something deserving of God wrath. And we can pray that this fear of God would cause the sinner to run, not away away from God, but towards him looking to Jesus the Christ as Savor and Lord, because in and through him the grace of God is found.

Friends, we must be faithful to say what God has said, even though the world scoffs at it. Indeed, we do trust that the Lord is able to use the sobering threat of judgement to draw his elect unto himself though faith in Christ Jesus.

The Great White Throne Judgment

Revelation 20:11-15 describes the final judgement of all who are not in Christ.

It scene is sobering: “Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them” (Revelation 20:11, ESV).

The throne is great. It is large and, in this context, it is ominous. It is a white throne, symbolizing the purity and holiness of the one who sits upon it. It is white symbolizing that the judgments that are about to proceed from it are perfectly just and right.

John also saw “him who was seated on it”, but here he makes no attempt to describe what he saw. We are to remember the description that we received of God enthrones in Revelation chapter 4: “At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald… From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder…” (Revelation 4:2–3, 5 ESV). You can sense that John is straining to describe what he saw. He is here reaching the limits of language as he attempts to describe the glory and splendor of God enthroned.

In Revelation 20:11 we find this awesome word: “From his presence earth and sky fled away, and no place was found for them” (Revelation 20:11, ESV). Here we have a description of the destruction that will come upon all of creation on the last day.

We’ve been given a taste of the destruction that will come upon all of creation on the last day a few times now in the book of Revelation.

When the sixth seal was opened in Revelation 6 John saw “a great earthquake, and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale. The sky vanished like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place” (Revelation 6:12–14, ESV).

When the seventh bowl was poured out in Revelation 16 “a loud voice came out of the temple, from the throne, saying, ‘It is done!’ And there were flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, and a great earthquake such as there had never been since man was on the earth, so great was that earthquake. The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell, and God remembered Babylon the great, to make her drain the cup of the wine of the fury of his wrath. And every island fled away, and no mountains were to be found. And great hailstones, about one hundred pounds each, fell from heaven on people; and they cursed God for the plague of the hail, because the plague was so severe” (Revelation 16:17–21, ESV).

2 Peter 3:7 and 10 describes the same thing. The Apostle writes, “But by the same word the heavens and earth that now exist are stored up for fire, being kept until the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly… But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed” (2 Peter 3:7,10, ESV).

This is the event that Revelation 20:11 refers to with the words, “from his presence earth and sky fled away”. They are burned up and dissolved. What exactly that will look like, I do not know. I agree with those commentators who say that the new heavens and earth will be a renovation of the current heavens and earth. The extreme language used here in Revelation is meant to communicate that the old is passing away and the new is being established. Hendrickson puts it this way: “Not the destruction or annihilation but the renovation of the universe is indicated here. It will be a dissolution of the elements with great heat (2 Pet. 3:10); a regeneration (Mt. 19:28); a restoration of all things (Acts 3:21); and a deliverance from the bondage of corruption Rom. 8:21. No longer will this universe by subject to vanity.” Whatever the mechanics, the principle is clear: the first heaven and earth will pass away. Why? So that the new havens and new earth can be established. In Revelation 21:1 we will read, “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away…”

But notice that everything in this passage comes to focus upon the judgement of the wicked, for that is one thing that will happen in the last day, those not in Christ will be judged and eternally condemned.

You have heard me say it before that last day is going to be a full day. A lot will happen when Christ returns. And the book of Revelation has been providing us with multiple perspectives on the time of the end. When we gather up all that the book of Revelation has to say along with the rest of the Old and New Testaments and bring it all together, it looks something like this.

  • Prior to the return of Christ all who belong to Christ will be preserved by Christ in this world as he church finds herself under constant assault from the evil one. The evil one is active, but he is defeated and restrained. Christ is enthroned in heaven with all authority in heaven and on earth belonging to him. He will build his church and preserve his people.
  • The beast (that is, political powers that persecute), the false prophet (that is, false teachers) and the harlot (who symbolizes the seductiveness of the world) will be used by the evil one to fight against the people of God and to urge men and women to abandon the worship of the one true God to worship the things of this world instead.
  • These pressures will not decrease, but will increase in the time of the end. The church will find herself under unparalleled assault immediately before Christ comes again.
  • But Lord will return to rescue his bride (see for example, Revelation 19:11-21).
  • It will be on that day that “the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord.” (1 Thessalonians 4:16–17, ESV). You may call this the rapture if you’d like, but it is not secret, nor is it before the tribulation. But as you can see, it is pre-wrath, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ,” (1 Thessalonians 5:9, ESV).
  • It will be on that day that “the rest [that is those not in Christ who had gathered to war against Christ and his people] [will be] slain by the sword that [comes] from the mouth of him who [is] sitting on the horse, and all the birds [will be] gorged with their flesh” (Revelation 19:21, ESV).
  • It will also be on that day that “the beast [will be] captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two [will on that day be] thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur” (Revelation 19:20, ESV).
  • It will be on that day that “the devil who had deceived [the nations to gather them for battle against the church] [will be] thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10, ESV).
  • It will also be on that day that “earth and sky [will flee]” from the presence of God. “The sky [will vanish] like a scroll that is being rolled up, and every mountain and island [will be] removed from its place.” (Revelation 20:11; 6:14, ESV)
  • It will be on that day the unrighteous will also be raised from the dead, not to enjoy eternal life, but to go to eternal destruction.
  • For it will be on that day that “the dead, great and small, [will stand] before the throne, and books [will be] opened… And the dead [will be] judged by what [is] written in the books, according to what they had done. And the sea [will give] up the dead who [are] in it, Death and Hades [will give] up the dead who [are] in them, and they [will be] judged, each one of them, according to what they had done” (Revelation 20:12–13, ESV). This is the event that our passage for today describes – it is the final judgement.
  • And it will be on that day that the new heavens and new earth are established, and those who belong to Christ do enjoy the presence of God and of Christ in the new heavens and earth forevermore.

You understand that when I say, “it will be on that day” I do not mean that all of this will be accomplished in one day as we know it, that is, in 12 or 24 hours. How long it will take for all of this to be accomplished, the scriptures do not reveal. But what is clear is that these events will happen all at once when Christ returns to judge and to make all things new. Any eschatological system that inserts large gaps of time – be it 31/2 years, 7 years or 1,000 years – in between any of these end time events is guilty of reading their system into the text. A careful and straightforward reading of the New Testament reveals that all of these things – the bodily resurrection of the just, the rescue of the church, the wrath of God poured out upon the wicked, the eternal destruction of the beast, the false prophet and the dragon, the bodily resurrection of the unjust, the dissolution of the first heavens and hearth, the great white throne judgement, and the casting of all wicked along with death itself into the lake of fire – will happen on the last day when Christ makes all things new. The last day is going to be a full day. A lot will happen when Christ returns for his bride.

When will the final judgement happen?

It will happen when Christ returns.

And who will be judged at the great white throne judgement?

The answer is that all of humanity will be judged at the great white throne judgement. Notice I did not say that all of humanity will be condemned, but that all of humanity will be judged.

The scene is set with a description of all of humanity standing before God who is seated on his throne. The general resurrection has happened, then. Both the righteous and the wicked are seen here standing in their resurrection bodies.

Nowhere do the scriptures teach that there will be a bodily resurrection for Christians followed by a thousand years after which there will be a bodily resurrection of for those not in Christ. Instead the scriptures do plainly teach that when the Lord returns those who are Christ’s who are alive will be caught up to be with him in the air. Those alive who belong, not to Christ, but are found warring against Christ and his people, will be slain. But all who are dead will be raised up and will stand before God as whole persons, body and soul.

Listen to how simple the words of Christ are in John 5:28-29 concerning the resurrection. “Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28–29, ESV). Why the pre-millennialists want to make things more complicated, I do not know. There will not be two resurrections – one for the righteous and one for the wicked separated by 1,000 years, but one general resurrection where those in Christ are raised to go to life and those not in Christ are raised to go to judgement.

Revelation 20:12 describes the effects of this general resurrection. All of humanity, both small and great, is seen by John standing before the great white throne….” (Revelation 20:12, ESV). In verses 14 we read, “And the sea gave up the dead who were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead who were in them, and they were judged, each one of them, according to what they had done” (Revelation 20:13, ESV).

The sea and Death and Hades are three ways of referring to the place of the dead. In this present evil age we experience death. When we die the soul is separated from the body. The body goes to the grave. But at the end of time there will be a resurrection of the dead. The sea, Death and Hades will give up the dead. In other words there will be a resurrection so that the body and soul of the individual will be reunited, never to be separated again.

Notice that in verses 14 Death and Hades are personified and are themselves said to be “thrown into the lake of fire (Revelation 20:14, ESV). In other words, death – which is the thing that brings about the separation of body and soul – and Hades – that is to say, the grave – will be no more after the bodily resurrection of the just and unjust at the end of time. All will go on existing as whole persons, body and soul, for all eternity.

Who will be judged at the great white throne judgment? Well, all of humanity is seen there, the resurrection of the dead having taken place. But who will be condemned at the great white throne judgement? That is a different question that requires a different answer.  It is all not in Christ who will be condemned.

Notice that there are two sets of books used to sort out this mass of humanity. In verse 12 we read, “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done” (Revelation 20:12, ESV).

And so a distinction is made between the books and the book of life. In verse 15 we read, “And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15, ESV).

What is this book of life? It is symbolic, of course. But is the book that contains the names of all who belong to Christ.

Paul used the phrase in Philippians 4:3 when spoke of two women, Euodia and Syntyche,

“together with Clement and the rest of [his] fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life” (Philippians 4:3, ESV). These were Christ followers. Paul said their names were written in the book of life.

The phrase appears six times in the book of Revelation.

In 3:5 the church in Sardis was encouraged with these words:“The one who conquers will be clothed thus in white garments, and I will never blot his name out of the book of life. I will confess his name before my Father and before his angels” (Revelation 3:5, ESV).

In 13:8 we learn that it is those not in the book of life who worship the beast.  Also it is there in 13:8 that we learn this this book – there called “the book of life of the Lamb who was slain” – was written “written before the foundation of the world”. In other words, if your name is in this book it there, not because of something you have done, but by the decree of God. If your name is written in “the book of life of the Lamb who was slain” it there there, not because you chose Christ, because God has chosen you  – “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8, ESV).

In 17:8 the same thing is revealed. Those not in the book love the beast. And again, the book is said to have been written “from the foundation of the world” (Revelation 17:8, ESV).

The phrase, “the book of life” appears twice in our text today.

And lastly, it appears in 21:27 where we find this description of the new Jerusalem: “But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Revelation 21:27, ESV).

So what determines who’s name is in the book of life? The decree of God determines it. The book of life was written by God before creation. The book of life was written before you and I were born – before we had done good or evil. The book of life symbolizes the doctrine of election or foreknowledge or predestination. Here in the book of Revelation we find a symbol of that great and awesome truth that is put so directly elsewhere in scripture: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved” (Ephesians 1:3–6, ESV). Paul says it plainly: “he chose us in him before the foundation of the world”, and “he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will”.  The book of Revelation symbolizes it with the image of names written in “Lamb’s book of life”.

Those not found in the book of life are judged according to what is written in the other books. And what is written in those except a record of all that we have ever done?

On what basis will those not in Christ be judged?

While it is true that it is those who’s names are not written in the book of life who will be condemned, the basis for their condemnation is not that there names were not written in the book of life, but it their sinful deeds that serve as the basis for their condemnation. Verse 12: They “were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done” (Revelation 20:12, ESV).

This is a significant observation, for it is here that we are reminded that we all deserve condemnation. Were it not for the grace of God shown to us in Christ Jesus – were it not for his mercy – then we would all be hopelessly lost. Were it not for God’s grace – his having determined to save us from eternity past, his having accomplished our salvation through the cross of Christ, and his having brought us to faith and salvation by his word and Spirit – then we too would be judged by what is written in those books that contain a record of all our sins, and who can stand when faced with that?

God sees our thoughts. He knows the intentions of our heart. He hears every word that we speak. He sees every deed. And he remembers all. That is the truth symbolized by these books that are opened and by which those not in Christ are judged. They are a record of all that we have ever done. Tell me friend, do you want to be judged according to that record?

It is amazing to be that some men think themselves be so good and so righteous that they might actually respond saying, “I think I’d do alright.” But this is what sin does to men, it blinds them to the severity of their own sin and also to the glory of God. Men in their sin think far to highly of themselves, and far to little of God. But they should be reminded that God sees all. He even sees the things that are secret to other men, and he has a record of them in his book.

But for those in Christ this record will not be counted against them, for Christ has paid the penalty for them. “And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross” (Colossians 2:13–14, ESV).

Better yet, Christ gives his record to all who believe upon him. It is the great exchange. Christ has bore our sin, and we have been clothed in his righteousness, if we have faith in him.

Conclusion

Friends, what should we do in response to these things?

Above all, I must exhort you to abandon all hope is yourself and to trust in Christ alone for the forgiveness of your sins. You are not righteous before God. Far from it, you have a great debt to pay. God has books, and you are in the red! But Christ has payed the debt for all believe upon him. More than that he also gives us his righteousness. So turn from your sins, confess them to the Lord, and trust in Christ alone.

And if you are in Christ, give all glory to God knowing that you are in Christ and have his righteousness, not because of something good in you or because of some good thank that you have done. Truth be told, you are and I no different from the rest of humanity. We too have record of debt. What makes the difference then? It is the grace of God. For, if you have believed upon Christ, it is because God did write your name in his book of life before the foundation of the world.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8–9, ESV).

“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:26–31, ESV).

Christian, it is not that you are without a record of debt, but it is that God, by his grace, does not hold it against you. It is he “who blots out your transgressions for [his] own sake, and [does] not remember your sins” (Isaiah 43:24–25, ESV). Indeed, we agree with Micah the prophet when he says, “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea” (Micah 7:18–19, ESV).

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