My last post was an attempt to offer some thoughts on how we as Christians are to respond to the recent presidential election. I want to continue the train of thought, but to approach it from the standpoint of some things revealed to us in the book of Revelation. First, let me make a few things clear. I am not concerned with whether we are living in “the end times.” I do not believe that Barack Obama is the anti-Christ. We have done a tremendous disservice to the book of Revelation by assuming it focuses on informing us on what future events are to occur. Most of our intrigue regarding the book is simply our effort to try and put the pieces of the puzzle together to see if we can figure out whether we’re living in “the end times.” However, the book’s message transcends these meager pursuits. It’s primary purpose is to inform us of how God intends to use the church to bring about His sovereign will and redemptive purpose.
In actuality, the book of Revelation offers the church a glimpse of the reality of the culmination of all things, while instructing it of its role in the fulfillment of God’s redemptive plan. The book of revelation speaks relevantly to every Christian that lives between the ascension of Christ to heaven and His return to bring all that God has shown us will happen in Revelation to fruition. Regardless of whether Jesus returns a thousand years from now or ten years from now, we are called to be a part of the work being commanded of us right now. We are, in actuality, living in the story of Revelation at this very moment. While Revelation does shed light on certain things that will occur at the very end of the story, it is a picture of the church universal through the centuries, and the enemy that stands opposed to the final establishment of God’s kingdom on the earth. Hopefully this will be understood better by the time we are finished.
The book of Revelation shows us how God will bring the entire creation under the rule of Christ. He will make all things right. The injustice, the poverty, the greed, the sin, that speaks against God’s rule, will finally be fully confronted and vindicated through judgment. However, along with the complete judgment being portrayed and accomplished, Revelation also reveals redemption on a universal scale in a way no other New Testament book could. It envisions the repentance and subsequent salvation of all nations. In the end, judgment will be complete and salvation will be universal (not universalism in the sense that every human being will be saved. What’s the point of judgment if this was the case? Obviously that’s not what it means. It speaks of salvation having come to every people, nation, tribe, and tongue).
In the midst of this powerful picture of what is to be the culmination of human history, John brings this vision to people immersed in a world where the Roman empire has abused, persecuted, stolen from, and exploited people to exalt themselves. It is an empire that resists the worship of the true God, deifying itself through military, political, and economic power and authority. In so doing, it not only exploits people, but seduces them into embracing their rule by compromising their belief in the rule of the one true God for the sake of their own benefit. Christians would have been vulnerable to the supposed benefits of this great power and authority. At the very least, they would have been threatened by the consequences of rejecting the empire’s vision of the world and subsequent lordship over them.
John’s readers were caught in a world that exhibited strong images of power, authority, control, and prosperity to draw its citizens into its grasp. Their vision of the world was shaped by those who were in power, and was a vision that distorted reality from God’s view. One author says this:
We have already noticed the unusual profusion of visual imagery in Revelation and its capacity to create a symbolic world which its readers can enter and thereby have their perception of the world in which they live transformed. To appreciate the importance of this we should remember that Revelation’s readers in the great cities of the province of Asia were constantly confronted with powerful images of the Roman vision of the world. Civic and religious architecture, iconography, statues, rituals and festivals, even the visual wonder of cleverly engineered ‘miracles’ (Rev. 13: 13-14) in the temples – all provided powerful visual impressions of Roman imperial power and of the splendor of pagan religion. In this context, Revelation provides a set of Christian prophetic counter-images which impress on its readers a different vision of the world: how it looks from the heaven to which John is caught up in Chapter 4. The visual power of the book effects a kind of purging of the Christian imagination, refurbishing it with alternative visions of how the world is and will be.
Much of the imagery used by John was not simply a vision of what things would look like one day, but was imagery familiar to the believers of that day that would have connected with the world of the first century. The meaning behind the imagery would have connected with those in the first century, while also projecting meaning that would have been relevant for the final culmination of what was already going on at that time, but would eventually be to an even greater extent.
Here is the picture Revelation paints for us: the world, to exalt itself, will assume great power, political, economic, even religious, to assert its lordship over humanity and garner the worship intended for the one true God. It will project a vision of the world that challenges God’s vision of the world, the true vision. And it will deceive many through its lies and distortions. This is a picture that can be seen, in varying degrees, through the last 2000 years, and will ultimately culminate in one final, worldwide expression. It happens now as it did 2000 years ago.
In the midst of this world, along with this new vision of the world, one that comes directly from the throne room of heaven, Christians are given a specific revelation. In one sense the whole book is a revelation. However, in the midst of this incredible vision, Jesus intends to tell His church something very specific. It is, in fact THE revelation. It is found in Revelation 11:1-13. Here the scroll is opened and the message is revealed. Everything else that has happened since chapter 5 has precluded the actual opening of the scroll. The judgments and destruction were not the actual content found in the scroll. And all of the judgments so far have failed to yield repentance. Hence God withholds the seven thunders in Rev. 10:4. The scroll is now opened, pointing to the fact that what judgments could not achieve, namely repentance, the revelation that is now to be given, can.
The revelation written on the scroll is this: that the church’s faithful witness and death is to be instrumental in the conversion of the nations of the world. Their victory is not simply their own salvation from a world doomed to judgment, as might appear from chapter 7, but the salvation of the nations. “God’s kingdom is to come not simply by saving an elect people who acknowledge His rule from a rebellious world over which His kingdom prevails merely by extinguishing the rebels. It is to come as the sacrificial witness of the elect people who already acknowledge God’s rule brings the rebellious nations also to acknowledge His rule. The people of God have been redeemed from all the nations (5:9) in order to bear prophetic witness to all the nations (11:1-13).
Jesus is telling the churches that the injustices they are experiencing, the hostility that has unfairly come against them, the struggle that they must endure, is central to God’s plan to redeem the nations. What they thought was stopping God from getting done what He wanted to do, was actually the means by which He was going to get it done. Their refusal to bow down to the emperor’s statue and to throw incense on the altar and declare Caesar to be Lord was a rejection of the empire’s lies. It declared allegiance to another God. It confronted the lies of the empire with truth, a truth they would pay the price for. Many would die. But in so doing, they would bring attention to the truth. Their refusal to be seduced by the great economic benefits of Roman citizenship and loyalty was so peculiar it provoked many an examining glance.
Oh, there is far more we could discuss. Revelation is so rich and illustrative and thought-provoking. This, however, is the major theme brought to us in the book. It reveals a reality that is vastly different than the one the culture paints for us. It reveals nations that come against the truth for their own exaltation. And it reveals a church that accomplishes the will of God through its sacrifice. To do so it must be captivated with this new vision of the world. God’s vision. Reality.
Listen, there is much that is uncertain about the days to come for us here in America. Certainly we are not where late first century believers were in terms of the opposition facing them. Certainly the centuries have been filled with times of greater sacrifice on the part of the church. Nevertheless, the principle remains the same. We fear no ruler nor their opposition. Their opposition, in fact, furthers God’s purpose and plan. May we be captivated with a true vision of the world, as John provides for us in his marvelous, divinely inspired work. And may we be prepared to pay a price if necessary.