/ Tuesday, January 14, 2020
It seems fitting to spend some time, standing at the beginning of a New Year full of potential and unknowns, to spend time looking at the things we're already certain of in the future.
We know more about the future than most, don't we?
As Christ-followers we actually know how it all turns out. I speak of course, of the visions and images, the revelations, that Jesus graciously has given us through his servant John in the book of Revelation.
Fear & Revelation
For many years I actually avoided reading this particular book in Scripture, because I grew up in an era where books and movies sensationalized and misinterpreted and created a climate of fear. I used to arrive home from school, and if the house was unusually empty, one of my first instincts was that everybody had been raptured but me.
A faith undergirded by fear and uncertainty is pretty shaky--I invited Jesus into my life more than a few times as an 'insurance policy' to make sure that I wasn't left behind when he came and snatched away all the Christians.
What a shame that a book that was given to encourage and give hope and assurance in the midst of difficult times, actually had the opposite effect. So, I want to look briefly at a part of this Revelation, from what I hope is a better perspective.
But first some context.
Political Cartoons & Revelation
In many respects diving into the book of Revelation is a bit like looking at a series of historical editorial cartoons from the newspaper.
In my home growing up, we had a series of bound copies of historical Punch Magazines from the UK from the mid 1800's, filled with political and satirical cartoons. I would look at these pictures and wonder what they were all about—they made no sense to me.
Looking only at the pictures without all the context to support the rich symbolism made them virtually unintelligible.
Just so with the images in Revelation.
We have to ask
- What do these pictures mean?
- What do all the symbols mean?
- What's going on?"
For us, 2000 years on, many of the symbols have to be rediscovered and relearned, but for readers in John's day, the imagery would have been incredibly powerful, and was part of the impetus that allowed the church to grow from a persecuted, marginalized minority to a powerful movement over the next several hundred years, despite the difficult circumstances they faced.
Hope & Courage
So, what is Revelation really all about? Why did God give it to us?
I have just finished reading and handwriting out all the words of the book of Revelation, accompanied by a commentary written by Darryl Johnson entitled Discipleship on the Edge, An Expository Journey Through the Book of Revelation.¹ It's actually the second time I've used this particular commentary to work my way through this amazing book. I commend it to you. Darryl Johnson contends that the whole point of the Book of Revelation is to give us hope.
"Things are not as they seem" could be the theme statement for the Book of Revelation. Each snapshot scene, filled with graphic imagery, is given in order to give us hope and build courage.
Despite what we see going on all around that looks calamitous, there is an awesome God on his throne, being worshipped by all of creation, and he is somehow ordering the events of this world.
We here on earth, then, can live with hope:
- When we see countries in turmoil--'things are not as they seem'.
- When we see political polarization and corruption--'things are not as they seem'.
- When we see the church around the world facing incredible persecution and pressure--'things are not as they seem'.
- When our personal circumstances seem overwhelming and there appears to be no way forward --‘things are not as they seem ’.
Something bigger is going on.
God is at work.
His purposes are unfolding.
Our job, as his people, is to live faithfully in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.
A Cosmic Battle
Darryl goes on to contend that chapter 12 is the heart of the whole book and that perhaps the pivot verse for us is found in Revelation 12:11.
"And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death."
Let me give a bit more context, by giving the whole scene:
And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.
Now war arose in heaven, Michael and his angels fighting against the dragon. And the dragon and his angels fought back, but he was defeated, and there was no longer any place for them in heaven. And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth, and his angels were thrown down with him. And I heard a loud voice in heaven, saying, “Now the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Christ have come, for the accuser of our brothers has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before our God. And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death. Therefore, rejoice, O heavens and you who dwell in them! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!”
And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. But the woman was given the two wings of the great eagle so that she might fly from the serpent into the wilderness, to the place where she is to be nourished for a time, and times, and half a time. The serpent poured water like a river out of his mouth after the woman, to sweep her away with a flood. But the earth came to the help of the woman, and the earth opened its mouth and swallowed the river that the dragon had poured from his mouth. Then the dragon became furious with the woman and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus. And he stood on the sand of the sea.
What a crazy image! A cosmic battle between a woman dressed in sunshine, standing on the moon, crowned with stars, who is giving birth while being chased by a 7-headed, ten-horned, red dragon who is wearing diadems.
Two signs: A woman--symbolically representing the people of God, who is eventually sheltered in the wilderness; and a dragon, who is out to destroy her.
The battle rages because of a cosmos-changing reality--that a male child was born who is to rule all the nations. Jesus.
Conclusions as we Look Ahead
As we start into a New Year, we are easily tempted to try to look ahead and anticipate the challenges that we will be facing.
Let me assure you, the visions of Revelation guarantee that we will face challenges. We are in the middle of a cosmic battle.
However, these same images assure us that the outcome is guaranteed--salvation, power, the kingdom of God and the authority of Christ have come.
Given this reality, there are some things I think we can conclude with absolute confidence:
- Whatever we think is happening is part of something much bigger...
- Much of what we think will happen this year will probably be wrong, because our perspective is limited and 3-dimensional. A calendar and a compass are only of limited use in understanding this cosmic battle.
- The core message of Revelation gives tremendous hope for today and for the future. 'Things are not as they seem.' God is at work in his world.
- The pivot verse remains unchanged: "And they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.”
Questions as we Look Ahead
We must ask ourselves:
1. What does it mean to be the people covered by the blood of the Lamb?
No accusation of the dragon can find its mark--we are covered by the blood of the Lamb. Hallelujah!
2. Are we faithful in speaking the word of our testimony?
No deceit of the dragon can survive the truth-telling of the people of God. But we must speak out our testimony of Jesus Christ to a listening cosmos, whether it is welcomed or not.
3. Do we take seriously the third qualification of those who conquer--that we don't love our lives even unto death?
When was the last time you heard a sermon in church on Sunday that called on the people of God to be prepared to give up their rights for the sake of Christ? To be prepared to give up their safety and control? To prepare for suffering? To prepare for martyrdom? To oppose the evil systems of this world even to the point of death?
As followers of Jesus Christ, whatever decisions we make this year, we must pass them through these filters.
A Cosmic Struggle...but we know the End
Darryl Johnson strongly states that the point of Revelation was to give hope...things are not as they seem.
He says, 'The suffering of the church in the world is not a sign of Satan's victory. It is a sign of his realization of defeat.'
Revelation is not a book for the faint of heart. We will do well to heed its warnings. We are in a cosmic battle...a life and death struggle--but we know how it ends.
Lorna Johnston is the Diaspora Ministries Leader at Outreach Canada. She leads two national teams--Loving Muslims Together (LMT) and Simply Mobilizing Canada (SMC). She works with teams of diverse and experienced leaders and ministries across Canada to alert and activate the church in Canada to the changing opportunities to engage God's mission right here in Canada.
¹Discipleship on the Edge: An Expository Journey through the Book of Revelation, Darrell W. Johnson, 2004