“But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practise magic arts, the idolaters and all liars – they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulphur. This is the second death.“
Revelation 21:8 NIVUK
From His throne, Father God concludes His instructions to the Apostle John. He lists eight categories of people who will end up in the fiery lake. At this stage in the End Times narrative, there will be none of these people left, because the time of the Great White Throne judgement has passed. So why was God reminding John about these things? John, of course, knew what was acceptable behaviour and what wasn’t because he spent over three years in Jesus’ company. He was there when Jesus taught about murder and adultery. He had been brought up in the Jewish culture and knew right from wrong. There are two possible answers to our question.
God asked John to write down this warning, so that back in his time-bound world, there would be no doubt about the fate of those violating God’s laws. Only the eight traits listed were mentioned but, as we will see, there were deeper implications behind them. God was also giving John the assurance that in Heaven there will be no sin. In Heaven, no one practising sorcery, for example, would be there. They would instead be finding out what life in the fiery lake was all about.
So who are those people God listed? We will all have our own thoughts when we read this verse, but here are a few of mine.
The cowardly are those who failed to stand firm in their faith when persecuted. This is really hard, because when faced with extreme levels of persecution, it is easier to deny Christ than continue to declare allegiance to Him. “How would I react in these circumstances?” is a difficult question to answer until we understand that God will give us the grace and strength when we need it. Jesus clearly warned His disciples of the difficulties ahead of them, as we can read in Matthew 10, but these two verses provide comfort, “But when they arrest you, do not worry about what to say or how to say it. At that time you will be given what to say, for it will not be you speaking, but the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” (Matthew 10:19-20). And we look at the privations experienced by the early Apostles, in particular Paul. As I read some of the testimonies provided by Open Doors and other organisations that work with persecuted Christians, I am constantly humbled by ordinary people who experience so much opposition and persecution just for declaring the Lordship of Jesus.
Coupled with the cowardly are the unbelieving. These are the people who just don’t believe in God. They may express outright opposition to God, or just be “lukewarm” as Jesus warned in His message to the church in Laodicea. We read in Revelation 3:15-16, “I know all the things you do, that you are neither hot nor cold. I wish that you were one or the other! But since you are like lukewarm water, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth!” Controversially, they may be people claiming to be Christians but who deny the laws of God and seek to dilute, change or ignore His Word, the Bible. However, I should hasten to add that God’s grace and love is there to grasp. He will not reject a repentant sinner.
God’s warning communicated through John will be no surprise to us pilgrims. We have spent our redeemed lives very much aware of the need for personal holiness, because we have read the verses in 1 Peter 1:15-16, “But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy. For the Scriptures say, “You must be holy because I am holy.”” Amongst other things, to be holy means to be set apart. We must not allow ourselves to adopt any of the worldly practices God was warning John about. That, of course, does not mean we should sell up all we have and then go and become a monk or a nun, although some have. As Jesus said in John 17:15-16, “I’m not asking you to take them out of the world, but to keep them safe from the evil one. They do not belong to this world any more than I do.” We can only share the message of God’s grace and love with our friends and families, and the people around us, by being in the same place as they are. But we make sure we are not tainted by the contact. We read in Galatians 6:1, “Dear brothers and sisters, if another believer is overcome by some sin, you who are godly should gently and humbly help that person back onto the right path. And be careful not to fall into the same temptation yourself.” There are a few words at the end of James 1 that are a warning, “Pure and genuine religion in the sight of God the Father means ….. refusing to let the world corrupt you.”
But I’m sure all the pilgrims reading this today don’t need reminding. We have a wonderful and loving Heavenly Father, and our relationships with Him are precious and above all the things of the world around us.
Dear Father God. We thank You for Your love and compassion that You have lavished so freely on Your people. We pray for strength to stay the course and to keep ourselves separate from the world around us. In Jesus’ name. Amen.