“Not the Messenger, But the Message” (Revelation 14:6-7)
St. John saw a lot of angels in the series of visions the Lord gave him in the book of Revelation. In today’s text from chapter 14, he sees another one. This angel is “flying directly overhead, with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people.” And this is what the angel “said with a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give him glory, because the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.’”
So who is this angel? Remember that the word “angel” in the Bible can also mean “messenger.” That’s one of the chief jobs of angels in the Bible. When they appear, they often have an important message to bring.
So who is this angel? What does he represent? Is it Martin Luther? His contemporaries thought so. That could be reading too much into the text.
Don’t get me wrong. Especially as we celebrate the Reformation today, I don’t want to downplay the enormous impact that Dr. Luther had on the Church and the history of Christianity and the entire world. But to say that Luther is prophesied with this angel under consideration smacks of Lutheran triumphalism and Protestant bravado. Besides, the text says he’s flying around in the heavens, in the bright white light of the midday sun. If this is Luther, then I get the picture of the Great Reformer in tights with a cape, flying around like a superhero with a big L emblazoned on his chest … or maybe his seal, like the one in the mosaic hanging on the wall back there. Whoever this angel is and whatever he represents, I can say with confidence – and I bet the good doctor would back me up on this – what is important is not the messenger, but rather the message!
Just prior to this angel’s appearance, St. John has a vision of two beasts who have the authority of Satan. The first beast represents all worldly political power that is opposed to God. The second represents all false teaching and counterfeit signs from within the Church. One beast is from the sea, the other from the earth, signifying Satan’s influence over the entire world. The first beast, in particular, was given authority “over every tribe and people and language and nation” (Rev. 13:7). Next, John sees a vision of all the redeemed, those marked with the Name of Christ in Baptism and who trust in the Lamb who shed his blood for the sins of the world, those who did not fall prey to Satan’s lies.
Then comes the angel – the messenger – in our text “with an eternal gospel.” And just as Satan has spread his influence around the world, this “gospel” – this Good News – is proclaimed worldwide to those of “every nation and tribe and language and people.” It is an everlasting message of Good News that counteracts and conquers all counterfeit couriers and Satan who sends them.
And this was the message: “Fear God and give him glory, for the hour of his judgment has come, and worship him who made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water.”
“Fear God”? That doesn’t sound much like Gospel. When you think about fearing God, you think about being afraid of him. You think about fearing his judgment. In fact, this was precisely Luther’s big problem. Later in his life, reflecting on his life as a monk, Luther said that he actually hated God and was angry with him. He hated the fact that God was righteous and Luther was not. Luther knew that the only thing he deserved was judgment and wrath.[i] “Fear God and give him glory,” says the messenger. But where is there any glory to be found in this judgment of God?
There is glory in this judgment, believe it or not. It is the glory of the cross. Not very glorious to human eyes, I’ll grant you that. But hidden under the gore was glory … the glory of the Incarnate Christ … the grace of God … the forgiveness of sins. The judgment of God here is that your sins and mine were credited to Christ. He was judged in our place. The judgment of God here is that you are “justified by his grace as a gift” (Rom. 3:24). Because Christ died for your sins, you are declared not guilty. You are forgiven.
In these words from the angel, we hear both Law and Gospel. We do indeed need to “fear God.” We do need to acknowledge our sins and repent of them. But fearing God also includes reverent trust. Psalm 130 teaches us this. The psalmist declares, “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared” (Ps. 130:3-4).
“Fear God and give him glory.” Come to him through Jesus. Thank him for what has been done to you by Jesus.[ii] And worship him. Receive in faith his gifts of life and salvation, especially in light of the fact that Jesus has promised to return again to judge the living and the dead. The author of Hebrews writes, “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:28-29). The hour of his judgment is coming on the Last Day. But at the cross, the hour of our judgment has already come. We are already judged in Christ. The Lord Jesus himself said in John chapter 3, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God” (John 3:16-18).
This is what we celebrate on the festival of the Reformation. Not the messenger, but the message. Not Luther, but the Gospel that he recovered and uncovered for the Church, the Gospel that had been covered over with so much medieval baggage … thinking that you had to buy God’s favor with your acts of devotion or paying for a little slip of paper that said your sins or the sins of your dead relatives were forgiven. With pen and paper, Luther flung ink at the devil, and the truth of the full and free forgiveness of sins shone brightly once again … that it comes by grace alone, is received by faith alone, and is revealed in Scripture alone.
In preaching, in absolution, in Baptism, and in the Holy Supper, God speaks his strong Word that “bespeaks us righteous” (LSB 578:3). You are not righteous. You’re not! [And to you confirmands: if you think you are, then let me ask your parents how righteous you are!]
So listen to Dr. Luther from his Galatians commentary:
Say with confidence: "Christ, the Son of God, was given not for the righteous, but for sinners. If I had no sin I should not need Christ. No, Satan, you cannot delude me into thinking I am holy. The truth is, I am all sin. My sins are not imaginary transgressions, but sins against the first table, unbelief, doubt, despair, contempt, hatred, ignorance of God, ingratitude towards Him, misuse of His name, neglect of His Word, etc.; and sins against the second table, dishonor of parents, disobedience of government, coveting of another's possessions, etc. Granted that I have not committed murder, adultery, theft, and similar sins in deed, nevertheless I have committed them in the heart, and therefore I am a transgressor of all the commandments of God. "Because my transgressions are multiplied and my own efforts at self-justification rather a hindrance than a furtherance, therefore Christ the Son of God gave Himself into death for my sins." To believe this is to have eternal life.[iii]
It’s true. You are not righteous. But God says you are because of Jesus. Done. End of story. Believe it. God’s Word does what it says. You are justified (or as we learned in confirmation class, God sees me “just-if-I’d never sinned”).
This is God’s eternal message. This is one truth that will never change. I think about the changes my grandparents saw. From horse and plow on the farm to rockets going to the moon. From snail mail to e-mail. All in less than a 100 years. I think about the changes my generation has seen. From dial phones to cell phones. From notepads to iPads. I think about how different the world will be by the time I’m dead and gone. What changes will our confirmands see in their lifetime?
Times change. Our world changes. And some of those changes aren’t God pleasing. What our culture says is good and true no longer matches up with what God’s Word says is good and true (and to one degree or another, I suppose this has always been the case). But God’s Word does not change. Remember that. Jesus said, “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” (Matt. 24:35). And Hebrews 13:8 says, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Since that is the case, then you can count on him to be the Savior of your sins of yesterday, your Savior today, and your Savior who will guard you and keep you until the day he takes you home to be with him in eternity.
[i] See Luther’s Preface to his Latin Writings from 1545 (LW34.336).
[ii] Brighton, Revelation, 382.
[iii] Luther on Galatians 1:4, from Graebner’s translation of Luther’s commentary on Galatians, found at http://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/luther/luther_galatians.html