We all would like to know what the future will bring for us and our loved ones. Where is the world headed? More personally, we would like to know the answer to the big questions of why there’s so much suffering in this world. Why do bad things happen to good people? Christians want to know why a good God allows suffering to occur in their lives and in the world.
The book of Revelation speaks to these questions. It has been called a writing for hard times, and ours are certainly hard times. We see the effects of our times on ourselves, our loved ones, and the world in general. The problems are legion: Civil wars, crime, hate, accidents, natural disasters, starvation and malnutrition, emotional maladjustment, economic dislocation, alienated youth, disease epidemics, and moral corruption.
Revelation speaks to every difficulty we may face as human beings or Christians. But not in the way most think.
Who wins in the end?
Revelation is little interested in giving us a time line of specific world events or a blueprint for world history. It tells us the wonderful news that despite appearances to the contrary, God is in charge of the world and our lives. And there is a future in which evil will be brought to an end. Evil has only a limited time to reign on earth before Christ will return to take over and guide human affairs.
More than this, Revelation explains why evil is irresistible, and why we should put our faith in God and not be swayed by a world that seems out of control. When rightly understood, we find Revelation not to be so much interested in chronological dating of events as in telling us why the world is in such a mess, and what God has already done about it through Christ.
In the words of J. Ramsey Michaels, “The purpose of preaching from the Revelation is to evoke first wonder and then faithfulness to the slain Lamb, not to explain the book away or reduce it to a blueprint of the future” (Interpreting the Book of Revelation, p. 146). That was the original purpose of the book: to evoke wonder and then faithfulness; preaching should be in keeping with that purpose.
As a literary type of writing, Revelation had much in common with a class of Jewish writings in the first century that scholars have called apocalypses. Jewish apocalyptic writings sought to explain to their readers why they, the people of God, were suffering under oppressive governments such as that of Rome. Apocalyptic writings were called “tracts for bad times.” Writers of apocalyptic wanted to assure their readers that God would vindicate them and eventually overthrow those who oppressed them. This is precisely the role of Revelation as well.
Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart explain it in these terms. “Apocalypses in general, and the Revelation in particular, seldom intend to give a detailed, chronological account of the future. Their message tends to transcend that kind of concern.” In the same way, “John’s larger concern is that, despite present appearances, God is in control of history and the church. And even though the church will experience suffering and death, it will be triumphant in Christ, who will judge His enemies and save His people” (How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth, p. 211).
The subject matter of Revelation—including the symbolism that seems so strange to our ears—must be seen in the light of this single concern, which turns out to be a key to Revelation. The “key” turns out to be who and not what.
It is God and Jesus Christ who are at the center of the book of Revelation, not specific dates and times or events. J. Ramsey Michaels tells us, “At the heart of the Book of Revelation is a story, the same gospel story that echoes throughout the entire New Testament, about a slain Lamb victorious over death and evil and a God who makes everything new” (Interpreting the Book of Revelation, p. 147).
Revelation is a book about bad news and good news. It explains the bad news we experience by showing us the yet unseen good news. It is a way of restating Christ’s words to his disciples when he told them that in the world they would have trials, but to have hope because he had overcome the world (John 16:33).
There is much bad news because of the sinful work of Satan and his system—Babylon the Great. It is a system all Christians must live in, even though we should not partake of its sins. The good news, however, is that Christians win both now and in the end through the power of the Creator God.
The perfect government of God will banish all evil from the human family. That is, in essence, the final message of Revelation. However, human society, in opposition to God and dominated spiritually by an unseen devil, will not fade from history without a struggle. The Lamb will come on the scene as Jesus Christ to destroy these opponents of God’s way.
How long, O Lord?
Revelation was written to encourage the first-century church to focus its faith on the unseen God and Christ. The church of that time was buffeted by many problems. Christians had been ejected from the synagogue and could no longer receive the same privileges from the Roman government as Jews had. They were outwardly persecuted by Jews and pagans alike for their beliefs.
Inside the church, some teachers were saying that accommodation with pagan beliefs and Roman politics was good and necessary. It had been six decades since Jesus had died. Jerusalem had fallen 20 some years earlier. The expectations that Jesus would return and save the church had not materialized. The church must have been asking: “How long, Lord, before you return?” In the words of Leon Morris:
The church continued to be a tiny group, doubtless adding a few members from time to time, but not becoming, and not looking like becoming, a mighty force to take over the Roman Empire. That Empire continued on its wicked way. Oppression and wrong abounded. Evil men prospered. Idolaters persisted in their idol-worship, and the cult of the emperor flourished. Because they would not conform, the tiny band of Christians found themselves the object of suspicion and sometimes outright persecution….What had become of the message which had induced them to become Christians in the first place? Where was the promise of Christ’s coming? All things continued as they were from the foundation of the world. If God was active in the world it demanded a very strong faith to perceive it. (Revelation, Revised Edition, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, p. 21)
The church must not have quite known how to understand its future. The book of Revelation came into the breach. It explained why there seemed to be a glaring difference between what the church hoped for and what they were living through.
In these troubled times, the apocalyptic-prophetic epistle of Revelation, based on the revelation of God, was sent to the scattered and buffeted church community in its various congregations. In that epistle, God and Jesus Christ called the church to understand that they were sovereign in the life of the church and the world—all appearances to the contrary notwithstanding! Revelation gave them a word of hope and a reason to be faithful.
Revelation tells us the only reality in the universe worth being concerned about is God, who is the ruler of the universe. Besides God, only the Lamb (who has made human salvation possible and will one day bring God’s government to earth) is worthy to be worshipped.
In this sense, Revelation is a very political book. It asks and answers the question: Who is worthy to be feared and worshipped? Who is the Savior of humanity? It is not Caesar with his armies, but the Lamb who was slain.
God has already judged the devil and human society. The work of salvation in Christ has already been done. God is in charge of church and world—and the end has come. It’s only a matter of time when these facts become realized on this earth and all will see God’s triumph over evil.
A call to repentance
Revelation calls on Christians to take seriously the teaching delivered to the church on the sovereignty of God in history. It says that Christians must not neglect their salvation—they must repent, where necessary.
Revelation calls members to faith in a time when it is challenged by events that seem to contradict the sovereignty of God. One can see in Revelation this moral urgency, calling the church to repentance in the face of obstacles from enemies and the society at large. Revelation made its point dramatically by using illustrations that had special meaning in the world in which the church lived.
Revelation describes the faith problem in the churches through letters from Jesus to seven congregations in seven cities in the province of Asia Minor. Most are having difficulties of one sort or another having to do with Christian love and faith.
Ephesus has given up its love for the believers and has pursued heresy, perhaps the most diabolical loss of faith. Smyrna is under siege by those who attack its faith, as well as those who might persecute them physically, even to the death. Pergamum allows false teachers—with the code names Balaam and Nicolaitans—to compromise the faith in various ways. Thyatira allows a false prophetess with the code name of Jezebel to compromise their faith in Christ. Sardis is said to be spiritually dead. Philadelphia is being attacked by outsiders who claim to be the people of God and say the church is a fraud. Laodicea is racked with spiritual pride. It perceives itself to be doing wonderful spiritual works but, in fact, is not expressing true faith.
The seven churches chosen to receive the letter may represent the entire Christian community scattered throughout the world. If so, the church of A.D. 96 had a very serious spiritual crisis, manifested in various ways. Hence the call to repent.
Meanwhile, the rest of Revelation presents the church in its ideal state as a martyr church that is faithful through persecution and even to death. This is the church as it ought to be, having total and humble faith in Jesus Christ. There is a difference between the church as it is now, and the church as it ought to be. This is still true, and the message of Revelation still applies to the churches today.
The purpose of Revelation is to point the imperfect church to its perfected model in Christ. Revelation says the church is not to look to itself nor compromise with the world. Rather, it is to direct its gaze to the Almighty God, the ruler of the universe, and to the Lamb who saved them.
In this connection, the pivotal parts of Revelation are chapters 4 and 5. Here the book introduces us to the reality of God symbolized as seated on a throne, and then to the Lamb who alone can open the scroll of Revelation so the authority of God may, in the future, make its impact felt in full force on the earth.
It is to God that the church must look. It must not take pride in its own accomplishments, not be smug in its own beliefs, and certainly not compromise with a world that is under the sway of Satan—whose works the Lamb is coming to destroy.
To emphasize the difference between the way things are and the way they ought to be, Revelation uses stark symbols of good and evil, black and white, horribly corrupt and pristine purity. Perrin outlines the dualistic structure of Revelation:
“At the pinnacle of power on one side is God, the Pantocrator, ruler of all (1:8). On the other is Satan, the Dragon, who has power, a throne, and great authority (13:2). Allied with God is the Lamb who was slain (5:6)…. Allied with Satan is the beast from the sea (13:1-2)…. All the people on the earth are divided into two groups; those who have the seal of God on their foreheads and whose names are in the book of life (3:5, 12; 7:3; 20:4; 21:27; 22:4) and those who bear the mark of the beast and worship it (9:4; 13:8. 17: 14:9-11; 16:2; 20:15). There is also a sharp contrast between the luxurious and voluptuous harlot, who represents Babylon, the earthly city of abominations (ch. 17) and the pure bride of the Lamb, who symbolizes Jerusalem, the heavenly city of salvation (19:7-8; 21: 2, 9-11). This literary tension reflects the political tension between the adherents of the kingdom of God and those of the kingdom of Caesar (11:15;12:10; 16:10:17:18).” (Jesus and the Language of the Kingdom, p. 142)
The message for the church in all this is clear. There is a heavenly reality that is much more important than the visible world. The church should put its faith in that true power above and not in the apparent but temporary power of the world around.
This message is made evident throughout Revelation. The picture of the glorified Christ in chapter 1, the throne room of heaven and the power of the Lamb in chapters 4 and 5 accomplish this. In a negative sense, the wrath of the Lamb on the world as described by trumpet and bowl plagues also shows the relative weakness of the world in relationship to God. Finally, the reign of God is pictured by the coming of the rider on the white horse in chapter 19 to judge the world. The final judgment of God in chapter 20 and the coming of the New Jerusalem in the last two chapters speak of the future but coming rule of God to earth.
The contrast between God’s kingdom and the church’s position in the world is instructive. The church may seem powerless on earth—and it is of itself. But the slain Jesus was glorified, and is on the right hand of the Father, controlling the world’s destiny. This Christ is the ruler not only of the world, but the protector of the church as well.
Revelation is a book of sobering reality. It shows the church to be powerless in the world, and persecuted. The church is not exempt from suffering when God allows it for his purpose. That is part of required Christian faithfulness—to believe in God and Christ despite appearances to the contrary.
But more than this, Revelation explains that the negative aspects of the Christian experience are not to be chalked up to time and chance, or be considered meaningless suffering. The church is integral to God’s great plan in history as he works out his mysterious purpose in the world. Suffering is in God’s overall purview, and it has meaning, although we do not always understand it.
Revelation, then, tells us the following about the relationship of the church to the world, and God’s plan:
- The whole world is spiritually disordered and under the sway of a confused and evil spiritual being called Satan, who uses the world system in an attempt to subvert God’s authority.
- God and Christ are the supreme powers of the universe and are in control of the world. Christ has already bested the devil, the world, sin and death—the enemies of God. God’s plan is as good as done, and in that sense “the end” has come.
- Nevertheless, God has not yet chosen to use his power to totally eradicate evil and restore his perfect love and justice to the world. This is true despite the fact that he has already pronounced the world’s doom and exercises lordship over all things.
- Meanwhile, God’s people must live in a disordered world until he chooses to bring his kingdom to earth in a final sense in the person of Christ. Christians may be persecuted and martyred in this world even as God himself in Christ suffered, was persecuted and died at the world’s hands. While the church may not understand the why of it all, it must keep faith with God knowing there is a purpose for “the way things are” in his plan.
- Therefore, Christians need to remind themselves of Christ’s lordship over the world and his capability to save them to the utmost. They must also realize that there is a real threat to their safety, prosperity and life from the world system. Come what may, they should put their faith and trust in the Lord of the world.
- While Christians live in the world—indeed, are to be lights to the world—they must in no case become part of the world’s system, sharing in its sinful ways. The command of Revelation is: Come out of her, my people. The church cannot compromise with sin or the world’s ways, even if this brings persecution or martyrdom.
- Ironically, it is through suffering and death that Christians overcome the world, just as Jesus did. Thus, no matter what happens to them in this disordered world—Christians should not fear what humans may do to them. If they escape with their lives, they win. If they are put to death, they win. No matter what, they should put their faith in Christ because he has power over all things—including death—and will reward the faithful at his coming with eternal life and give them authority over the world that did them harm.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com
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This article was written by Paul Kroll in the mid 1990s and edited and posted in 2013. Copyright Grace Communion International. All rights reserved. If you'd like to learn more about the Bible, check out Grace Communion Seminary. It's accredited, affordable, and all online. www.gcs.edu.