- Welcome to this blog which has been following the Book of The Revelation, and today completes that commentary with a summing up of the book’s theology. Previous blogs can be found by date from the archive, or at emmock.com bible reference, or emmock.com topic word. Comments and questions are always welcome. My other blog, which is more political can be found at xtremejesus.co
The daily headlines are reminders of the world we live in.
David Haines was born in Yorkshire, raised in Perth, served in the RAF as an engineer, before entering a career as a Peace Worker which took him to Sudan, and latterly to Syria with an Aid agency. He had obviously reckoned with the dangers of this kind of work, and was perhaps not surprised to be abducted in 2013 and kept hostage by ISIL. After attempts to rescue him failed, he was killed and beheaded by his captors and a video of this event posted online. I should apologise to his family for even mentioning him in this blog, but I do so because of my great admiration for him, and because I think his life and death ask the question to which the Book of Revelation is an answer:
Is the sacrificial life and death of such a person simply a tragedy, a sad waste of a good man or woman, that should arouse tears and anger, or is there more that can be said?
Some people will answer that his sacrifice is an inspiration to others, to be similarly brave for the sake of justice. Others may admire him while reckoning that there is no point in such foolhardiness, and that only extermination can meet the threat of ISIL and their like. I am with the first group, certainly, but I wonder if there is anything more that can be said about the sacrifice of a very good life for the sake of lives that are not so good. If David Haines is only inspiration, the brutal nullifying of his own life remains a tragedy.
John, the prophetic author of the Revelation, must have asked himself a similar question about those members of his church assembly who were exiled, tortured or killed because they refused to recognise the divinity of the Roman Emperor. His visions provided an answer, but we are not to imagine that they were given to him miraculously from above; rather they are the fruit of the tradition he had received and his own reflection upon it.
He had received the story of Jesus Messiah as part of the story of God told in the Jewish scriptures. God is the one and only creator of the universe, who has always been engaged, with the help of his people, in a battle against the monstrous powers of human evil. The execution of his Messiah Jesus by the Roman state, was seen by this tradition as the culminating event of the battle, in which God’s Lamb died refusing to compromise with power and violence, only to be raised from death into God’s heaven, from which he was expected to return and to put the earth to rights.
As regards his members who were suffering persecution, John would also have received the hope expressed by St Paul in the words,”if we suffer with him we shall also share his glory,” meaning that true unity with Jesus Messiah was effective on both sides of death. For the sake of his people, John decided to examine the traditions of Jesus death and resurrection in greater detail, asking about the cause of evil and suffering; the means by which evil may be overcome; the personal destinies of those who suffer for God’s goodness; and the ultimate future of God’s creation. His book imagines the life of his seven church assemblies in three overlapping sets of seven visions, of which only the last depicts events which are wholly beyond the horizon of history, while the others reveal the hidden truth of earthly events from the perspective of heaven. I think he succeeds in giving clear answers to the questions which troubled him and his people.
THE CAUSE OF EVIL
It looks as though the ultimate cause is the old dragon, The Satan, the Adversary of God. Yet the dragon has no personality and is merely a symbol of the accumulated power of human evil. The author does not minimise this power; it is demonic and capable of great harm. But is not supernatural. It is the terrible power unleashed by the worship of false Gods. It is created by human arrogance which makes Gods in its own image and is then ruled by its own creations. The manifestation of demonic evil is the Great City which is called Babylon and is a portrait of the Roman Empire, and of all its successors on earth.
This means that The Revelation is a political theology. The author does not think that the Empire is the origin of evil; all human beings are capable of creating false Gods; but the Empire is the concrete structure of evil on earth, with its networks of propaganda, ideology, religion, commerce and armies, its complex networks of communication and control, its great Beasts. The lives of all its citizens are affected by its rule.
THE MEANS BY WHICH EVIL IS OVERCOME
Opposed to this manifest evil are those who do not make Gods for themselves, but worship the One and Only God, the Creator of all worlds, who lives in all times. Unfortunately these people are not great in number, wealth or power, and theirs church assemblies seem insignificant in face of the Great City and its resources, as does their leader, the one called The Lamb, who even in resurrection bears the marks of slaughter. Indeed the assemblies are not even perfect in their own convictions and have to be rebuked and encouraged by the author. The result of the battle of good and evil seems to be a foregone conclusion. Nevertheless, there are people who make the Great Refusal, refusing to bow down to the gods of Empire, to the danger of their lives. It may at times have seemed a hopeless act of defiance to John the prophet and his people.
Hope comes from prophet’s visions in which he sees and reveals the hidden reality of earthly events from the perspective of heaven. He is able to do this because of his faith, expressed only in his final vision, that the universe is not one dimensional, and that there is another Great City, the holy city of God and the Lamb in which all hurts are healed and from which all evil is expelled. To envision this city, the prophet has had to make a prodigious spiritual journey, beyond the confines of the empire, beyond the tradition which he has inherited, beyond common sense, beyond the horizon of history, to the place where God wipes all the tears away. From that perspective his preliminary visions can see a rescuing truth even within the events of the everyday world. Of course, his tradition helped him, as his numerous quotations from it, and images borrowed from it attest. But he has to do something not attempted by his prophetic predecessors, to put Jesus whom he knows as the Lamb, at the centre of God’s creative rule.
This title sums up the whole history of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, which can simply be seen as victorious as in the first vision of Jesus in chapter 1, “I was dead and behold I am alive for ever more!” To call this conqueror, The Lamb, is to emphasise that his sufferings are not merely an unfortunate mistake now overcome by his resurrection, but are an eternal constituent of his nature. Because the Lamb is at the heart of the throne of God, the suffering of those who make the Great Refusal is united with his suffering: “they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” Never again will any member of the church assemblies, ordered to burn incense to the Goddess Roma, feel alone in the face of the vast empire, but will know herself accompanied by a great crowd whom no man can number standing before the throne of God and of the Lamb. The vision of the End-time empowers brave, conscientious action in the everyday world.
The two cities are given further definition in the visions of the book. The visions of Babylon flesh out its impressive rule; a whole culture and economy has been determined by its idolatry, its self-worship. It is a picture which encourages the reader to ask if it still exists. We don’t need to be Rastafaris to see Babylon in the world powers of today, especially perhaps in the overarching global power of advanced capitalism.
The Great Refusal is primarily trust in the true God, the holy Creator, and the consequent refusal to serve other, manufactured gods. The author is not saying that those who suffer for making this refusal will be rewarded in the day of God’s victory; no, their faithful witness is how God wins the battle. God does not overcome evil by vast power, but by the witness of the Lamb and those who follow him. All the thunderclaps, earthquakes, angel armies and fires from heaven are but the heavenly truth of the earthly witness of Jesus and his disciples. In the end the Rider on the White horse destroys his enemies by the sword of his mouth, that is, by the compelling truth which took him to the stake and takes his followers to their costly witness.
THE PERSONAL DESTINIES OF THOSE WHO MAKE THE GREAT REFUSAL
Those who in the midst of the city of death have declared themselves citizens of the city of life, will find that they are so, forever. Their life beyond death is not much described. It will be a communal life, in which their sufferings will be recognised by being healed, where they will enjoy their freedom as God’s children, in gratitude and praise of God. Many of them will be conscious followers of Jesus, but others outside the church assemblies who have also refused idolatry, will also share in the life of the holy city. They have not earned their eternal life, but they have chosen it on earth and are given it in the new creation. That is true of David Haines.
THE ULTIMATE FUTURE OF THE UNIVERSE
The final victory of God and the Lamb is not the simply the millennial binding of the Adversary and the rule of God’s people on earth; that happens anytime and any place where God’s goodness, expressed by human beings, ropes the devil and allows justice to flourish. It is rather the creation of new heavens and new earth in which there will be no evil either because evil doers will have been persuaded to choose life by God’s witnesses or will have gone to the destruction they desired. In that new creation, earth will be perfected by heaven, so that the original purpose of God – “and God saw that it was good” – is fulfilled. It is notable that in the new creation, the holy city plays the role played throughout the book by Jesus the Lamb and by John his prophet, the link between earth and heaven. It is also notable that the elements of the original creation which stood for the residue of chaos within order, the sea and the night, are abolished in the new creation, because the evolutionary wisdom of God has now been perfectly accomplished. All restriction is removed; God and his people live together.
A lot depends on this final vision, which as I have said, is the key to all that has gone before. If it turned out to be banal or ugly, the whole book would have been destroyed. As it is, however, the author gives a brief glimpse of the loveliness of the new creation which leaves us wanting a longer look. Doubtless that was his intention.