In the last post, we considered the approach to interpreting the Revelation offered by William Hendriksen’s 1939 More Than Conquerors: An Interpretation of the Book of Revelation.
I posted the last few verses of each of seven parallel visions, all concluding with God’s victory over Satan. But they are not the same. They offer radically different perspectives.
- Chapter 3 promises God’s children a seat on his throne and a crown. It speaks of “one who conquers.” “Prevails” would be a better translation. The idea is to “hold fast” (3:25) — to be faithful. We are not the one who is called to conquer the Dragon. That’s Jesus’ job. Our job is to be faithful.
- In chapter 7, the saved are described as: “These are the ones coming out of the great tribulation. They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” It’s the work of the Messiah that saves them. They held on through the times of tribulation.
- Chapter 11 concludes with a celebration of the Lord’s victory, but it’s a result of the outpouring of God’s wrath against “the destroyers of the earth.” “The nations raged, but your wrath came, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for rewarding your servants, the prophets and saints, and those who fear your name, both small and great, and for destroying the destroyers of the earth.”
Destroyers and misusers of humanity’s stewardship of the earth reversed the mandate God had originally given humanity (Gen 1:26). This idea was not unknown in John’s day, e.g., 2 Baruch 13:11, although the unrighteous use of creation there may refer specifically to idolatry. Many Jewish writers also believed that humanity’s sin had corrupted the whole creation (e.g., 4 Ezra).
Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Accordance electronic ed. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 792.
Yes, God cares about his creation and will punish those who don’t care for it as he commanded in Genesis 2:15.
- Chapter 14, in radical contrast, ends with the image of people being harvested by an angel with a sickle. “19 So the angel swung his sickle across the earth and gathered the grape harvest of the earth and threw it into the great winepress of the wrath of God. 20 And the winepress was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle, for 1,600 stadia.” This passage inspired the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” and the notion of the Grim Reaper. It’s not pretty — and it’s as contrary to Universalism and such like as can be imagined. Jesus’ victory will include the destruction of people who are his enemies.
- Chapter 16 again concludes with a message of vengeance: “and they cursed God for the plague of the hail, because the plague was so severe.” It’s not just that God will prevail, but that his enemies will suffer the justice of his wrath. They will pay a high price for their sins — their persecution of the church, their treatment of the poor, etc.
- Chapter 19 concludes with the defeat of the Dragon and the two Beasts “20 And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had done the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image. These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulfur. 21 And the rest were slain by the sword that came from the mouth of him who was sitting on the horse, and all the birds were gorged with their flesh.” While the monsters are thrown in the Lake of Fire, “the rest” are slain with a sword — that is, the word of God preached by Jesus.
All of these passages suggest that judgment in the context of an eschatological battle comes by means of the power of the Word of God rather than through force of arms.
Christopher C. Rowland, “The Book of Revelation,” in Hebrews-Revelation (vol. 12 of New Interpreters Bible, Accordance electronic ed. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998), 700.
Then I saw an angel standing in the sun, and with a loud voice he called to all the birds that fly directly overhead, “Come, gather for the great supper of God, 18 to eat the flesh of kings, the flesh of captains, the flesh of mighty men, the flesh of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all men, both free and slave, both small and great.”
The humans die. They are defeated and suffer death. It’s hardly a pleasant scene. It’s a dishonorable death (far more important to the Greeks in Asia Minor than most Americans), and it’s eternal death — that is, death with no hope of resurrection.
- Finally, chapter 20 presents the general resurrection, even those who died at sea. And “14 Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire. 15 And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” Hades is where the dead reside. It’s the grave or, in OT language, Sheol. Jesus defeats death itself. The gates of Hades — the passageway into death itself — cannot defeat the Kingdom. Indeed, the Kingdom defeats Hades. And those not within the church are destroyed. The Lake of Fire is where Death and Hades are destroyed — not where they are tormented. The point is their utter dissolution — they cease to exist. There will be no more death and no more graves.
So the Revelation is not rainbows and unicorns with glitter and stickers. It’s ugly, brutal, and horrific. The reason the words fill our poetry, music, and fears is that John very intentionally grabs images that are primordial and very powerfully draws a distinction between the saved and the lost.
He doesn’t threatened the damned with perpetual, conscious torment. But he does threaten a horrifically painful destructive death and cessation of existence. God’s justice will be meted out — fairly. Those who suffer will richly deserve what they receive. But it will be ghastly and awful for those who’ve opposed God’s church. Unambiguously. Take whatever point of view you wish, the Revelation promises a painful ruin for those who stand against God and Jesus.
But for the church, despite its imperfections and weakness, if God’s people will just hold on and be faithful in the face of temptation and persecution — if they’ll flee the idolatries of nationalisms and false religions, gains made from mistreating others — and be true to their calling to serve God and him only — they will be more than conquerors.
[From Nashville and from Zambia. I have to say, I prefer the Zambian style. I mean, why not celebrate?! Isn’t that whole point?]
All of which brings us to a very nice blog post by Jonathan Storment “Set Free with Sorrow.” Read the entire post, but here’s the key conclusion:
Everyone suffers, to different degrees and at different levels, but we all suffer, the difference is how we bear it.
Anne Lindbergh discovered that when we suffer we must also mourn. We must be able to name things as they really are, and not pretend that our faith makes us somehow immune to pain, but even harder, we must remain open and vulnerable to even more suffering. …
One day your days will run out. One day you will die and leave all your unused staples behind. And the great temptation of humanity is to avoid and ignore that at all costs, To deny your death, and to ignore suffering.
But Jesus came to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death”
Jesus came to set us free.
And sometimes we find we are set free with sorrow.
The point of the Revelation isn’t that God protects us from suffering. Quite the opposite. The visions predict all sorts of dreadful suffering by God’s people. Name an imaginable calamity, and it’s visited on God’s people in apocalyptic Technicolor by John the Revelator.
The lesson is that God will be with us as we sustain the suffering. And if we’re patient, we’ll see God win the victory over those who make us suffer. And so our suffering will in no way separate us from God. Rather, because God is the God who suffered for us on the cross, our suffering will draw us closer to him — marking us as his beloved people for whom he will defeat every enemy — even Death and the Grave.