Archives For Revelation

Earlier this week, a group of 21 Egyptian Christians, members of the Coptic Church, were beheaded. The accusation against them: they were “people of the cross, members of the hostile Egyptian Church.” This unfathomable act was carried out by ISIS—an act of barely veiled evil, supposedly done in service to God. Religious people everywhere (most Muslims included) are horrified at this and other atrocities committed by the Islamic State.

As I hear about this beheading, I am in the middle of my semester, in which I am teaching two courses that give me two unique perspectives on this event. On the one hand, I am teaching about the persecution endured by the Christians in the first three centuries. On the other hand, I am teaching through the book of Revelation. The church history course gives historical perspective; the Revelation course gives eternal and theological perspective.

In talking about the early church, we have been looking at many examples of Christians who bravely met their death. From sometimes sporadic and sometimes full-scale persecutions under Roman emperors to persecutions in China, India, Egypt, Africa, and the Middle East for most of Christian history, persecution has been the church’s constant companion. Paul promised: “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). And he meant it. Jesus himself said, “In this world you will have tribulation,” but he also went on to say, “But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Throughout history, many of our Christian brothers and sisters have boldly chosen death over disgrace, martyrdom over apostasy. Most of these martyrs didn’t actually have to die: there was a simple escape from their painful deaths (often preceded by torture). All they had to do was renounce Jesus. And yet that simple act was more than they could bear; death was a far more attractive option.

Despite numerous attempts throughout church history (and apparent victories in specific areas at specific times), evil has not been able to stop the followers of Christ from, well, following Christ—from picking up their own cross and accepting death on behalf of their Lord. As Tertullian famously said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

These 21 men bravely joined the prestigious ranks of those who have demonstrated that Jesus matters more than their own lives. As Hebrews says, these are people “of whom the world was not worthy” (11:38).

At the same time, I’ve been teaching through the book of Revelation. Though there is much disagreement about the nature and timing of Revelation, the book was originally written to seven churches on the verge of intense persecution from the Roman empire (or “Babylon,” as Revelation refers to it). The letter of Revelation was written to keep them standing strong in the face of persecution. Some churches were in danger of flirting with the evil empire, and Revelation calls them to remain faithful. Other churches were about to suffer for their faith, and Jesus says to them: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (2:10).

Standing firm as a faithful witness to the reign of Jesus—even in the face of death—is a key theme in Revelation. Revelation calls all Christians to be ready to lay down our lives rather than deny Jesus in our words or our actions.

In calling us to be faithful witnesses to the point of death, Revelation is calling us to follow the example of Jesus. Towards the beginning of the book, John hears an announcement of “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David,” who has “conquered” (5:5). And as John turns to look upon this conquering, kingly Lion, he seems something startling: “I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (v. 6). What John sees interprets what John hears. Jesus is indeed the King, the conquering Lion. But the way in which he has conquered is by dying as a sacrificial Lamb. This then sets the stage for the followers of the Lamb.

The white lamb in the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck

The white lamb in the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck

Throughout the book of Revelation, the followers of the Lamb are called to “conquer” in the same way the Lamb conquered: “They have conquered him [the dragon: Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (12:11). It is fascinating that in Revelation, the same event in which Satan and the evil empire are said to conquer over God’s people (11:7, 13:7)—namely, martyring them—is also the event in which the martyrs are said to conquer Satan and evil (12:11). The evil empire believes that it is conquering by killing the saints; the saints are assured that they are conquering the evil empire by dying. We are reminded of Paul’s words:

“We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).

Faithful witness is the call throughout Revelation, and martyrs throughout history have answered this call.

So as I heard about ISIS beheading 21 Christians and referring to them as “the people of the cross,” I thought: they got that exactly right. People of the cross indeed. People who are willing to pick up their cross and follow Jesus. And as I heard of one of the ISIS soldiers claiming, “we will conquer Rome,” I thought: they got that exactly wrong. They are siding with Rome, with Babylon, with the beast, with the evil empire. And the men they beheaded are the ones who truly conquered Rome.

Because our Christian brothers went to death for the sake of Jesus’ name, choosing faithful witness to the lordship of Jesus over their own lives, evil was conquered on Sunday. Just as in the crucifixion of Jesus, evil has been conquered in the very act by which it meant to conquer.

So to our Christian brothers who defeated ISIS: Thank you for reminding us that Jesus is better than life. Thank you for showing us that death is not defeat, that those who remain faithful to death will receive the crown of life. We are inspired by your allegiance to the slaughtered Lamb, and we are resolved to follow the Lamb into the heavenly city, where he has already wiped every tear from your eyes (Rev. 7:17, 21:4).

This entry is part 8 of 8 in the seriesTips for Reading Bible Genres

RevelationFinally we come to the most daunting literary genre in the Bible: Revelation. Of course, the book of Revelation is not a genre in itself, but it makes use of three genres, and how exactly Revelation is to be read and interpreted is one of the most debated issues in Christian theology.

Revelation lets us know that it is made of up three literary genres: letter (1:4–5), prophecy (1:3, 22:6–7), and apocalyptic (this genre stems from the Greek word for “revelation” in 1:1).

  • As a letter, we need to see the “situational” nature of Revelation, keeping in mind those factors we mentioned in discussing the New Testament letters.
  • As prophecy, we will be finding predictions of the future and/or messages from God about how we are to live. This will correspond to what we said about reading Old Testament prophecy. In fact, from a genre perspective, Revelation wouldn’t seem quite so odd if it were placed in the Old Testament rather than the New.
  • As apocalyptic, we will find God communicating to his people, often through sweeping visions and a heavy reliance on imagery. Some modern Christians are suspicious when the term “apocalyptic” gets brought up, thinking that Revelation is about to be explained away. But this genre is used in Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah, so we needn’t be afraid. Plus John begins the book by saying that this is the “revelation” (Greek: apocalyptic) of Jesus. It simply alerts us to the fact that much of what we’ll see in the book will feature images, and much will be symbolic. Every interpreter agrees that Revelation makes use of symbolism.

Ultimately, what Revelation does for us is pull back the curtain of perception and show us reality. As we look at our world (and this would have been particularly true for John’s original readers), it seems that the dominant forces in this world are winning. It looks as though the wicked are triumphing and God’s kingdom is being halted. But Revelation gives us a peek behind the curtain. It shows us the throne room of God (chapters 4–5); the battle between good and evil, including God’s judgment on the wicked (chapters 6–19); and the glorious end of the world (chapters 20–22). There we see the evil of this world exposed, judged, and destroyed. And we see the triumph of God and his kingdom.

Whatever we decide about the timeline of Revelation, the book is meant to challenge our allegiance. It calls us to come out of the wicked city of this world (18:4–5) and to enter God’s glorious city instead (22:14). As we read, we must choose a city, choose an allegiance, choose a king. And it’s clear which one will be victorious.

Here are a few things to keep in mind as you read this fascinating book:

 

1. Live within the imagery.

Revelation includes fairly straightforward letters to real churches in chapters 2 and 3. But the main way in which Revelation communicates is by creating a symbolic world into which the reader is invited. Very often, readers of Revelation find a vision or symbol and then immediately try to figure out who or what that symbol represents. I believe this is a mistake.

Remember that these are visions that John is watching. We should step into the visions with John, seeing what he sees, hearing what he hears. Because Revelation is so saturated with imagery, we need to enter the symbolic world and appreciate how the symbols and visions work together. Then we can step back into our modern world and ask what these symbols are referring to. Revelation works extremely well as a literary unit—our disagreement comes when we begin laying the visions out onto our timelines.

 

2. Look for interpretive clues left by the author or characters.

Much of Revelation is left to the reader for interpretation. But there are times when we are told what the symbols refer to—Revelation 1:20, for example. So when we are handed the interpretation, we should latch on to that and use it in helping us interpret whatever we can.

 

3. Consider the relation of these images to the events of history.

We have to start by living within the world of Revelation before we try to decide when these things will be and what precisely they will look like. But at some point, we have to ask those questions. This is where we find the most debate, of course. Some think these events all took place within the first century AD, others say these things are happening spiritually all the time, and still others see these as future events. I know it’s a copout, but there is likely some truth in each of these views (here’s a helpful resource to help you sort out the different views). But even though it’s difficult, we need to ask when and how this will play out.

 

4. Let you life be shaped by the overall picture of Revelation.

As important as the timing of these events is, I would argue that the most important feature of this book is its call to wholehearted allegiance to Christ. He calls us out of the corruption in the world (18:4–5) and calls us to “wash our robes” in the blood of the Lamb and “enter [God’s] city by the gates” (22:14). Ultimately, we have to see these visions as a challenge to the way we see the world and a call to see our world as God sees it.

This entry is part 4 of 5 in the seriesThe Light of the World

Jesus is the light of the world. John tells us all about that in his gospel. But the most striking picture of this actually comes on the last pages of our Bibles.

Revelation 21-22 give us a picture of the world set to rights, of the world as it was meant to be. God’s justice has finally been satisfied. He has done away with death, with evil, with sorrow, with pain, with every effect of the curse. He has wiped every tear from the eyes of his people. Now God’s people dwell with him in a new heavens and a new earth. And God’s holy city, the New Jerusalem, comes down to earth. And Jesus is the light of that city:

“And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there.” (Revelation 21:23-25)

Isn’t that an amazing description? We actually see this imagery twice at the end of Revelation. The concept of Jesus as the light of the world will take on an even greater significance at the end of the world.

No Sun, No NightHere we see echoes of Genesis 1 of the light scattering the darkness. We see echoes of John 1 of Jesus chasing away the darkness and not being overcome by it. We get a picture of a world in which there is no sun, moon, or stars. Yet this is a world without darkness. A world without night. Why? Because Jesus is the light of that place.

Jesus is now the light of the world. And when we finally see him face to face and dwell with him forever, he will be the light of the world.

This image of the light of Jesus filling the earth ought to flood our dreams. It ought to inspire our actions. This is the hope for which we are living. It is our privilege now to be set ablaze in Jesus, to bear that holy flame in our very being, glowing with the light of life. One day it will fill the earth directly, making even the sun and moon embarrassingly inadequate and unnecessary. But right now the lamp through which Jesus sheds his light is us, his church. A city on a hill.

 

GateRevelation is a tale of two cities. I just finished teaching a three-week summer session of New Testament Survey, which culminated in reading the book of Revelation overnight. As I read through this enigmatic book in a very short period of time, I was struck by the contrast it makes between two cities.

On the one hand is Babylon. The wicked city. The city that embodies all opposition to Christ and his kingdom. That timeless city of evil.

In Revelation, the might of Babylon puts to death the followers of Jesus and becomes drunk on the blood of the martyrs. The first readers of Revelation would have certainly seen Rome reflected in the descriptions of Babylon. We can see many other historical and current nations reflected there as well. In the future, a great city or nation may well arise that plays the role of Babylon.

But identifying precisely which nation “Babylon” refers to is not the main point. Revelation speaks of Babylon to unmask the forces of evil. They look so powerful, so alluring, so unstoppable. But Babylon is wicked. And it will fall. Revelation devotes a solid chunk of poetry to describing Babylon’s destruction (see chapters 18-19).

And one of the major reasons for which Revelation is written is to call us out of the wicked city. If we read the descriptions of Babylon and see our own nation reflected, we are called to acknowledge our nation for what it is. Insofar as we find ourselves colluding with the Babylons of the earth, we are called to step away. To exit the wicked city:

“Come out of her, my people,
lest you take part in her sins,
lest you share in her plagues;
for her sins are heaped high as heaven,
and God has remembered her iniquities.” (Rev. 18:4–5)

Where do we go once we have exited the wicked city? Into the other great city in Revelation: the New Jerusalem. This is our true home. It’s the city we were made to live within. It’s where our true citizenship lies.

Revelation 21–22 offer a description of this city that has brought tears to the eyes of weary and oppressed Christians for centuries. No more sin. No more death. No more tears. There is no temple, because God is dwelling directly with his people. There is no sun, because God himself is the light of that glorious place.

Though these two cities are in conflict throughout the book of Revelation, there is only one city left standing at the end of the book. And we are called to enter it:

“Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right to the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates.” (Rev. 22:14)

Revelation would have us take stock of our allegiance. When you look at your life, do you conduct yourself as a citizen of Babylon or of the New Jerusalem? Do you spend more time in the wicked city or the heavenly city? To the extent that the nation in which you live embodies the descriptions of Babylon, have you “come out of her”? When you examine your deepest longings and commitments, have you “washed your robes” that you may “enter the [heavenly] city by the gates”?

Ultimately, there are only two cities in this world. Eventually, there will be only one. According to Revelation, the city you choose makes all the difference.

If I had a nickel for every time an angel lied to a person and led them to start a false religion, I’d have at least 10 cents. I’m thinking here of Joseph Smith and Muhammad, both of whom started their religions (Mormonism and Islam) after receiving revelation from a bright and shining angel.

In reality, angels lie to people far more often than this. John had to warn his readers:

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.” (1 John 4:1)

The Angel Moroni (atop a Mormon Temple), who gave further revelation to Joseph Smith.

The Angel Moroni (atop a Mormon Temple), who gave further revelation to Joseph Smith.

Just because an angel says it doesn’t make it true. Many false prophets, John says, have gone out into the world on this account. John calls us to have discernment in light of this grim reality.

But the scariest angel warnings actually come from Paul. He says:

“Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:8-9)

He says it twice for emphasis. It doesn’t matter who is teaching the false gospel. Even if an angel from heaven stands before you and tells you something that contradicts biblical teaching, you tell that angel to go straight to hell! (This is the literal meaning of “let him be accursed.”)

But what if the angel is really bright and shiny? Paul addresses that question too. He talks about those who are teaching false doctrine (the “false prophets” that John mentioned), and says:

“Such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ. And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light. So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness.” (2 Corinthians 11:13–15)

Surely if you see an angel of light, you can believe what it says. Right? No! Paul says that your shimmering angel may well be Satan himself.

The Angel Gabriel revealing the teachings of Islam to Muhammad.

The Angel Gabriel revealing the teachings of Islam to Muhammad.

These frequent warnings in Scripture show how dangerous it is to rely on our experiences alone, as if a word from an angel should be enough to direct us away from God’s truth. These warnings have been available for thousands of years, and both Joseph Smith and Muhammad claimed to have a reverence for the Bible. Why did they not pick up on these warnings?

At these two crucial moments in human history, Satan’s messengers (perhaps even Satan himself) appeared to these two men in angelic light and spoke soul-damning lies. And so many tragic souls have been swallowed in allegiance to what they believed to be truth.

Of course, this is a good reminder to stay away from false religions. But it’s more than that. It’s a reminder for all of us to stick to the bedrock truth of what God has revealed in Scripture. This is what Paul was calling for in Galatians 1:8-9. Know God’s truth intimately. Know it so well that when an angel, a kindly person, a church leader, or whomever, shows up speaking ideas that contradict Scripture, you will recognize those lies for what they are.

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