The End? The end of Evil

This 22nd post in our series through Revelation studies the message of chapter 18. A recording of this will be available on the Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel.

We make use of metaphors in our daily conversations to bring across rich ideas.  We refer to “Wall Street” collectively as the market economy system.  “Hollywood” is synonymous for the movie industry.  “Newspapers” rarely refer to printed media, but rather journalism as a whole.  The “Cayman Islands” are synonymous with tax haven.   In the same way we use words like “The East” or “The West” or “9-11” to bring across collective ideas, and with it the powerful sentiments.

Revelation is full of metaphors which are meant to move its readers emotively.  We read about Christ being the Alpha and Omega, the Bright Morning Star, the Lamb of God, the Lion of Judah, etc.  Judgments are depicted as seals, trumpets and bowls.  The Church is called golden lamp stands, the 144’000, the Bride of Christ, the New Jerusalem, etc.  In contrast, Rome is depicted as the Beast, the Great Harlot, Babylon, etc.  Just as the 144’000 refer to God’s saints through the ages (7:4-8) so too Babylon refers to more than Rome.  It refers to the all who “want to make a name for themselves” (Babel, Genesis 11:4), any and all empires or ideologies that resist God and his reign.

Revelation 18 paints the scene of the destruction of Babylon, with a funeral scene. In it the Author alludes to the judgments of the pagan cities Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), ancient Babylon (Is 13:19-21) and Edom (Is 34:11-17).  John’s vision reveals three reasons for the destruction of Babylon – a warning to all.

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Al Samara, Iraq.

Self-glorification (18:7-8). “Because she glorified herself” God poured out on her the seals and trumpets and bowls.  Six times in this chapter Babylon is called “great” (18:2, 10, 16, 18, 19, 21); like ancient Babel, this city has succeeded to make a name for herself (Genesis 11:4).  Her boasting alludes to the arrogance of King Nebuchadnezzar who said “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” (4:30).  That very moment God brought the proud king down.  Indeed, “pride goes before destruction” (Proverbs 16:18).

The self-glorification and destruction of Babylon is in stark contrast to the thankful humility and exaltation of the New Jerusalem who “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.” (Revelation 21:23)  Indeed, “God resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6).

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Emperor Crassus, the richest man in his time (www.nationalgeographic.com)

Power, prosperity and perversion (18:3).  The Caesars of Rome promised peace and prosperity to all who submit to their rule through the Pax Romana.  The life they offered was one of sensuality, wealth and security through its military might.  To the first recipients of Revelation, “Babylon” pointed to Rome.  In this chapter we see three groups of people mourning its destruction: “Kings” representing the pursuit of power, “merchants” representing the pursuit of prosperity, “ship masters and sailors” representing the pursuit of immoral pleasures (18:9,11,17).  The Author shows that Babylon is destroyed because it seduces and ensnares people with the lure of power, wealth and immoral living. 

The bulk of the chapter is directed at Babylon’s failed promise of prosperity, its lure of “luxury” (repeated three times 18:3,7,9).  Riches are said to be “deceitful” (Matthew 13:22) because it promises joy and peace – fullness of life – but Jesus warns that life does not consist in the accumulation of wealth and possessions (Luke 12:15).  The same can be said about Babylon’s lies promising power and sensuality: it’s offers of security and pleasure is a mere mirage to the thirsty, forever visible on the horizon but failing to satisfy.  These John writes elsewhere “are of the world: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life… And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” (1 John 2:16-17).  

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Injustice and violence (18:11-13, 24). Verses 11 to 13 list 31 trade goods into ancient Rome – the most comprehensive list of its kind preserved for us.  This thoroughness invites us to question the intent of such an extensive trade catalog in our text; it begs a closer look.  The harsh reality of Babylonian culture highlighted in this text is revealed by the long list of luxury trade items, such as gold, ivory, perfume, etc. ending abruptly with “slaves and human lives.”  Yes, Babylon also views human lives as tradable commodities and consumable resources.  This empire renown for its “luxury” (18:3,7,9) shamelessly gains its wealth through slavery and oppression. A second list comprising city noises affirms this atrocity: the pleasant sounds of music and rejoicing, milling and production, etc. are contrasted with the scenes (or screams?) of martyred saints (18:22-24).  

Rome, like every “great” empire before and after it, was known for its opulent splendor at the expense of human lives.  Babylon seeks pleasure and prosperity at any cost – even human lives and the cruel execution of whoever disagrees with the injustice of the regime.

For these reasons God is judging and will ultimately destroy Babylon.  How should the Church respond? There are two calls to the Church in this section.

Come out!  (18:4) The first call is to “Come out!” a warning to not partake in the sins of Babylon, and thereby escape its judgments.  This call to separate find its root in Lot’s escape from Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), Israel’s distancing from the sinners during the Korah rebellion (Numbers 16:20-35), and the destruction of Babylon (Jeremiah 51:6).  This phrase is repeated by Paul to abstain from Rome’s sexual immorality (2 Corinthians 6:17),  but here in this chapter the focus is on moral business and financial practices.   In particular it calls to abstain from the unjust practices which makes the rich richer and the poor poorer.  It warns of God’s impending judgment on those who enjoy luxuries while oppressing the poor.  This is indeed good news to the oppressed!

Rejoice! (18:20) The church is called to joyfully celebrate God’s victory over this vile, oppressive city.  And his judgment was given… for you against her.”  No longer will there be the reign of injustice which leads to oppression of the weak and poor, nor the persecution of the saints.  God’s judgment has ended the reign of evil on earth.

Bringing it home

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A golf course next to an informal settlement: inequality in our day.

We can see our world in Babylon’s description above: the pursuit of greatness, driven by greed and lusts, with the rich and powerful oppressing the weak and poor to gain greater wealth and power. Therefore this promise of the fall of Babylon brings joyful relief, but also calls for sober assessment of our attitudes and actions towards power, pleasure and prosperity.

The call to come out is a call not to isolation from the world, but separation from its evil practices (John 17:15-18).  This urges us to evaluate how we value self and others. Do we truly see every person as precious, bearing the image of God?  It challenges us to not only measure our social justice in how much we give, but also how we earn our money (and what we buy into when we shop). This separation (or sanctification) requires a work of transformation in our minds and hearts through diligent study of God’s Word and prayer (Revelation 12:1-2; John 17:16-17).  

We must also soberly acknowledge that although God’s faithful ones will escape the Final Judgment of Babylon, we may (continue to) experience the judgments over Babylon (depicted in the seals and trumpets and bowls).  This requires joyful endurance while we wait for God to make all things new.  Come Lord Jesus!

 

The End? The Beast and his Mark

The Beast and his mark is the focus of this study as our 18th stop in our journey through Revelation brings us to the 13th chapter and its infamous images. A recording of this will be available on the Shofar Durbanville Youtube channel.

Political satires like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Orwell’s Animal Farm, or even cartoonists like Zapiro, comment in their own generation on the need for renewal of human  society and government in particular.  Using creative and often comical images it portrays the politics and people of its day to show the flaws in ideology and society at large. Apocalyptic literature like Daniel, Ezekiel, and Revelation had this same purpose and pattern in its call for reform of God’s people and government in its day.

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Four beasts described in Daniel 7.

Revelation 13 opens with John standing on the sand by the sea where he saw Christ standing as Sovereign over land as sea (10:2).  In this way he reminds the readers that whatever happens in the land or sea is within Christ’s control.

The First Beast: Political Power. Then he sees a beast like a lion, leopard and bear combined rising our of the sea having seven heads, ten horns and  crowns (like the Great Red Dragon in the previous chapter who gives him strength) – having a blasphemous name on his head (13:1-2). This image is an allusion to Daniel 7 – a reference to the four successive empires of Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. The Beast in Revelation 13, looking like a combination of these four beasts, hints to the Roman Empire in its day, but also represents every other human government that opposes Christ.

 

The Beast is an image of anti-Christ government.  Although the word anti-Christ does not appear in Revelation, John writes about it in his epistles.  “The world is passing away… it is the last hour, and as you have heard that antichrist is coming, so now many antichrists have come. Therefore we know that it is the last hour. (2:17-18)   Fifty years earlier Paul also write about anti-Christ government already at work in the world (2 Thesalonians 2:7, 8-10).  Examples of these range from Pharaoh to Alexander the Great, Nero to Domitian, from Ganges Khan to Napoleon, Stalin to Hitler, Mao to Castro, Mugabe to Kim Jong Un.  The pages of history is filled the blood from the oppressive regimes of the Beast.

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What do we learn about this Beast of human government?  It is said to have full strength and great authority given to him.  It speaks blasphemies (13:1,5), implying it defames God and exalts itself to god-like status.  It gets its power from Satan himself (13:2).  It’s rule is characterised by intimidation, conquest and carnivorous violence (13:2, 10).  It has the power to revive itself after defeat (13:3).  Christ permits this beast to yield his authority for “42 months” during which it will wage war against the Lord’s servants (13:8) –  implying the redemptive period from Christ’s resurrection to his return (as discussed in a previous post).

The way this beast wages war against the church is through intimidation, leading to suffering and death (as the church in Smyrna, 2:8-14) or seduction, leading to cultural compromise (as in Laodicea, 3:14-22).

The Second Beast: Seductive Ideology. A second beast coming out of the land is introduced, likened to the Lamb in that it looks like a lamb but roars like a dragon (compare 13:11 with 5:5-6).  Here the relationship between the first Beast and the second Beast alludes to the relationship between Him who sits on the throne and the Lamb in that he yields the authority of the first Beast and causes all to worship him (13:12).  This second beast performs great signs and deceives many, telling people to worship the Beast and condemning all who do not worship the Beast (13:13-15; compare 2 Thessalonians 2:8-9). 

In the same way that Christ propagates submission to the rule of God, this beast subverts nations and people groups to submit to oppressive human government.  This beast represents false teachings wrapped up in counter-Christian ideologies embedded in human culture. Adherence to the Imperial cult empowered the reign of the emperor during the writing of Revelation.  This is evident today in the way that Marxist ideology empowers Communist governments, Islamic ideologies empower middle-eastern governments, Hindu cast-ideologies empower eastern governments, or secular humanist ideologies empower governments in the Liberal Europe.  The power of human government is strengthened to the degree that the population believe and buy into the philosophy it propagates.  The Beast from the Earth breeds allegiance to the Beast from the Sea.

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Altar at Pergamun, believed to be “Satan’s Throne” preserved in Berlin Museum.

In his epistle John therefore urged the churches to “test every spirit” because “the spirit of the antichrist… is now already at work in the world” (1 John 4:1-3).  The spirit of the antichrist seduces and intimidates people into submission of the anti-christian government. This is most clearly seen in how the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious leaders, swayed all of Jerusalem to hand Jesus over to be crucified by the Romans, shouting “We have no king but the emperor!” (John 19:15)

The warnings to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 show the seductive power of ideology to enslave even believers to earthly powers.  For instance, Pergamun, Rome’s Asian capital “where Satan’s throne is” (2:13) boasted a temple dedicated for Imperial worship.  Here the teachings of Balaam and the Nicolatians served the Sate Religion by swaying believers to participate in perverse pagan feasts and adherence to abusive power structure (2:1-17). (This is described in a precious post). In both Smyrna and Philadelphia we see how the teachings in the compromised Jewish synagogues serve the State, being called “the Synagogue of Satan” (2:9 and 3:9). 

The Mark of the Beast. This second beast enforces allegiance to the Beast by impressing the Mark of the Beast on their forehead or hand – “no one may buy or sell” without this mark (13:16-17).  The Mark is “the number of man: 666” (13:18). This verse is the cause of much conspiracy today, ironically taking figurative the “number of the Beast” but literal the application to the right hand or forehead.

 

Applying the guiding principles for apocalyptic genre, i.e. its 1st Century context, allusions to the Old Testament, and the highly symbolic use of images and numbers,  the “mark of the beast” is quickly demystified.  Firstly, we know that Imperial worship demanded that buying and selling in the markets were regulated and permitted once homage is paid to Emperor Domitian at the time John wrote Revelation.  The worshiper would receive a mark on his arm to show that honour was paid, permitting trade.

Secondly, worshipers of Yahweh was daily reminded by the Shema-prayer to be devoted to God with their head, hearts and hands:

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Orthodox Jews make us of “Teffilin” as embodiment of Deuteronomy 6:4-8.

“Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart You shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontlets between your eyes. ” (Deuteronomy 6:4-8)

Jews have used this prayer with physical reminders through the centuries. Devout Orthodox Jews even today use “tefillin”, small boxes containing parts of the Torah on the foreheads and hands as symbolic reminder to have God’s Law in their head, heart and hands.  These “marks” or “symbols” speak of a life of allegiance to God.

Thirdly, the number six is the symbol for man in apocalyptic genre (created on the sixth day), also representing imperfection, failure, and sin in general – just short of 7, the sign for God, perfection, holiness.  A repetition of three indicates fullness, completeness or mass, as seen in repetitions such as “Holy! Holy! Holy!”  Grouped together, the number “666” speaks of the fullness of all man can do or accomplish, the power of mankind combined – being wholly lacking, insufficient and flawed in nature.  In the words of William Hendriksen “[666] demonstrates failure upon failure upon failure” (More than Conquerors, Commentary on Revelation, Baker Books: 1967).

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The meaning of the Mark.  Drawing conclusion from our findings above we find that in his revelation Jesus likened the allegiance people paid to Domitian witnessed by the mark on their arms, to worship and trust in him and his government – being inherently flawed and wholly insufficient to bring peace to earth.  This is in contrast to those who live devoted to God, aligning their attitudes, affections and actions to the Law of God

To us today, as to every other generation, the mark of the Beast speaks of trust in human government, opposing God’s reign.  It warns that compromise in fear of persecution amounts to betrayal of Christ and submission to the Beast and the Dragon.

Note the next verse (14:1) speaks of the Lamb’s Army of 144’000 – marked by the Father’s name on their forehead.  Neither the mark of the Beast of the mark of the Father is physical.  It speaks to the person’s devotion and trust in man’s government of God’s reign – with the actions that back it up.  The Lamb and his army is the focus of the next post.

 

Bringing it home

Revelation 13 continues to unveil what are the forces at work in the world today.  The image of the two beasts, one of Political Power and the other of Seductive Ideology, are said to hold sway over all the nations, except those faithful to the Lamb.  These beasts control the minds and actions of all peoples in the world – even as it did in the time of Daniel’s writing and John’s writing.

As Christians we ought to witness the Reign of God to our world – which at times will bring us at odds with the government of the day.

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Resistance to these beasts may result in economic poverty, social exclusion and violent persecution.  We see this today in where more than 2.6 million Christians are highly persecuted by both state and culture; that is 1 in every 8 believers (Open Doors).  But we also see the power of these beasts in the numeric decline and spiritual apathy of the church in the prosperous West.  The Beast of the Sea wages war in intimidation, while the Beast of the Earth in ideological deception. Both enslave the earth and pose a threat to the witness of the church.

How do we conquer these to beasts?  Read the Word to know God’s kingdom from teh world’s kingdom.  Recognize the beast at work in government and culture – do not be ignorant, because he is prowling around! (1 Peter 1:7-8). Render appropriately: to earthly government prayer and tax and appropriate obedience; to God complete devotion and obedience. Reveal the Gospel by walking in the way of the Lamb – in humility and meekness.

 

The End? The dragon, the woman and the boy

The age-old war between the dragon, the woman and her offspring is our focus in this 17th study through Revelation, stopping at chapter 12 today. A recording will be uploaded to Shofar’s Youtube channel

If Jesus is victorious, and Satan is defeated, why are things so bad?  This was the question that whirled in the minds of the oppressed believers in John’s day – the question that gets answered clearly in chapter 12.  The first half of the Revelation focused on the reality of the church (ch 1-3), God’s throne room and Christ’s unfolding reign played out on earth (ch 6-11).  Chapter 12 reveals the cosmic battle in heaven which results in the chaos on earth and persecution of the saints.

Revelation 12 paints the picture of an epic war between a woman with a male child and a great read dragon.  This scene in the middle of the book is the first of seven “signs” or symbols which explore the depth of the message of the scroll.  These seven “signs” depict greater mysteries that govern the realities of our world and is rich in theological substance, helping the church make sense its struggles on earth. (See 12:1-7; 13:1-10; 13:11-18; 14:1-5; 14:6-13; 14:14-20; and 15:2-4).

You will note again in this chapter that Revelation is not a chronological roll-out of God’s redemptive plan, but in various ways depicts the church’s struggle with evil throughout history.  Although chapter 11 concludes with a picture of the 7th trumpet as God’s Final judgment and victory the end, chapter 12 revisits the origin of this battle starting in Eden, in Bethlehem and Jesus’s ministry.  But this time the struggle is shown from heaven’s perspective.

Three characters are introduced in this sign: the woman, the great red dragon, and the male child.  Who are they?

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By Ted Larson (2004)

The woman is said to be clothed in the sun, the moon at her feet, having twelve stars around her head – an allusion to Israel in Joseph’s dream (12:1; Genesis 37:9).  But there is more: this woman “gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (12:5; compare Psalm 2:9) – representing Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Furthermore, the dragon wages war with the woman and her offspring – an allusion to the curse on the serpent in the garden of Eden and Eve (12:17; compare Genesis 3:15).  And lastly, we read that this woman’s offspring are “those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus” (12:17)– meaning the woman also represents the church.

The woman here in Revelation 12’s first sign simultaneously represents Israel, Mary, Eve and the church – God’s redeemed Kingdom people throughout the ages.  This is another depiction of the Lamb’s army or 144’000 from every tribe, tongue, people an nation depicted in Revelation 7.

OXYGEN

The Red Dragon is “great”, with seven heads, seven horns, seven diadems and a large sweeping tail – a picture of full of strength and reign.  This dragon is “the ancient serpent” of Eden, named “the devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world” (12:9).  In the chapters to follow we will see that the Dragon is the source of power behind the beasts (all that is oppressive and intimidating), Babylon the great prostitute (and all that is sensual and seductive), and the False Prophet (all that is deceptive).  The Red Dragon symbolises all that is oppressing and seducing and deceiving God and his people.

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The Male Child is the man Jesus, the Son of God, “one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron… [and] was caught up to God and to his throne” (12:5, compare with Psalm 2:9 and Acts 1:9).  This is not meant to be read that the Jesus was taken away as child, but these things are said that we may know his identity and the identity of the Woman. The focus of this drama is on the battle between the Dragon and the Woman.

The drama describes how the Dragon wants to “devour” the male child at his birth, hinting to the great infanticide of boys by Herod the Great in Bethlehem after Jesus’s birth (Matthew 2:16).  Satan’s lethal pursuit of Jesus is seen during in his wilderness testing (Matthew 4:1-11), but most vividly when “Satan entered Judas” (Luke 22:3), to sell him out to his executioners.  Yet Christ conquered the worst the Dragon could do to him and ascended.  With the Child seated on the Throne, the Dragon’s vengeance is directed at the Woman who had “fled into the wilderness” (12:6).

The wilderness is said to be “a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1260 days” (12:6).  This is an allusion to Elijah, God’s prophet against the wicked king Ahab and his sorcerer wife Jezebel, who announced God’s judgment of drought on Israel’s rebellion against his rule (1 Kings 17:1).  Elijah was hidden and nourished by God in the wilderness for 3½ years, which equals 42 Jewish months or 1260 days (1 Kings 17:2-16; compare James 5:17).  As with all the numeric values in apocalyptic genre, this should not be read as a literal duration of time, but as symbolic.  Paul Spilsbury says

“They – 1260 days, 42 months and a time, and times, and half a time – don’t tell us anything of the literal duration of the time of the ‘tribulation’, but what the tribulation will be like.” (The Throne, the Lamb & the Dragon: A Reader’s Guide to the Book of Revelation, Intervasity Press : 2002)

I explained in the previous post why the period of 1260 days represent a season for the fulfillment of God’s redemptive purposes on earth.  As in the case of Elijah’s wilderness hide-out, the Woman’s 1260 days in the wilderness after the Child’s ascension represents the time required for God’s purpose on earth to be fulfilled.  Gordon Fee concludes on this number:

“In apocalyptic literature such numeric imagery refers to a time of national distress. John now is using it to point to a limited time of suffering on the part of God’s people which precedes the coming of the glorious kingdom of God.” (Revelation, New Covenant Commentary, Cascade Books : 2010)

In plain language, “1260 days in the wilderness” speaks of the Church’s preservation in suffering during the time of God’s redemptive judgment on the kingdoms of the world.  This period began at Christ’s ascension and will conclude at his return.

Times of trouble.  This drama shows that this period is marked by trouble for the church, and the sustaining grace of God, as their place is being prepared.  This image of God’s sustenance of his people in the Wilderness, awaiting their full salvation is also an allusion to God’s covenantal faithfulness to Israel during their Exodus journey towards the Promised Land (compare “two great wings of an eagle” in 12:14 with Exodus 19:4).  This wilderness period for Israel was characterized by God’s protection and provision, but was not free from trials, tribulation and temptation.  Likewise the church’s time on earth is marked by Christ’s victory over sin and slavery, yet not free from the presence of intimidation, seduction and deception.

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The cosmic conflict.  In verse 7 the vision moves from what takes place on earth to what takes place in heaven (similar to transition between chapters 1-3 and chapters 4-5).  The drama shifts from Christ’s work on earth to the result from his victory played out in heaven.  This is depicted as a angelic battle, wherein Michael the arch angel dispels Satan.  Six times this scene describing the cosmic conflict John reaffirms that Satan has been “thrown down”, a result secured “by the blood of the Lamb” (12:11).

Why the hardship? At this point the early church should have interrupted the reader of John’s message and ask the logic question: “If the Dragon has been defeated, why is the church suffering so much?”  John’s vision answers this question next, describing the “wrath” and “fury” (12:12, 17) which the Devil lashes out in vengeance against the Woman who bore the child. He is angry “because he knows that his time is short” (12:12) – he will  be thrown into the lake of fire forever (20:10).  He is angry because the Dragon’s domain is shrinking as Christ’s Kingdom Gospel is spreading (Matthew 16:19; compare Luke 10:17-20).  And therefore he persecutes the Woman who finds shelter in the wilderness.

Satan’s Schemes. How does the Dragon wage war on the Woman? This chapter reveals his strategies as accusation, deception and violence/ murder.  The word for Satan means accuser.  Accusation drowns the believer in guilt, causing him to feel discredited, dishearten and defeated.  Without confidence before God the believer will not witness and might walk away from Christ. Secondly the Dragon deceives believers, luring away with lies – either through temptation or false religions.  Thirdly, the Dragon vengefully persecutes through violence, intimidating the church into caves into by the threat of pain and death.  These images of the Great Dragon’s schemes would have been very relevant to the early church, even as it is very relevant to the church today.

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Defeat the vengeful Dragon

Defeating the Dragon. John’s vision inspires and instructs the church by showing believers in God’s throne room who “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.” (12:11)   They overcame accusation by the blood that washes away all sins, giving a clear conscience before God (Hebrews 9:14).  They overcame deception by their testimony that Christ is risen, conquering death (Matthew 28:6; 1 Corinthians 15:8ff). They overcome the threat of violence and the love of pleasure by following Christ’s example of enduring all for the prize set before Him (Hebrews 12:1-3).

In chapter 13 this drama is depicted in greater detail, unveiling more of the church’s struggle on earth.

Bringing it Home.

We are right to ask the question the early believers struggled with: If Jesus is victorious, and Satan is defeated, why are things so bad?

MiguelCabrera-Virgin_of_ApocalypseThis apocalyptic vision describes our context by unveiling the reality of Satan’s vengeful pursuit of Christ’s church. Satan is angry because he is losing his domain and his time is short.  It helps us understand that we live in this period where God’s redemptive grace leans a measure of protection and provision for the church, while opening a door for the nations to turn to him in light of his redemptive judgments.

The comfort in this vision is that the Dragon’s time for vengeance is short, but the church’s victory is eternal.  The challenge in this vision is that Satan is is behind the voices of accusation, the seduction of pleasure and power, the fear of pain and death there is a Dragon lurking, “looking for someone to devour. [Therefore,] resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings.”   (1 Peter 5:8-9)

 

 

Suffer well

Over the last few weeks the world’s attention has been drawn to the intense persecution of Christians and other minority groups by the “Islamic State of Iraq and Syria” (ISIS), offering Christians three choices if they wish to stay: convert to Islam, pay peace tax and lose your family, or die.  More than 800’000 Iraqi minorities have been displaced, thousands have died a cruel death.

Ann Drew argues that “at no other time in history have we ever been more aware of the horrors of religious persecution.”  And rightly so: the #WeAreN campaign (Arabic “N” for “Nazarene” or follower of Jesus) is gaining momentum in social media as activists appeal raise awareness in the hope of a speedy end to this injustice by uploading images and petitioning for governmental engagement and financial contributions. (Do you also find the mainstream media strangely quiet on this serious matter?  I suspect they fear to put Islam in a bad light in fear of retribution). 

So again we have all been alerted to suffering of persecuted Christians in Iraq.  Off course, this is not new to the church in Iraq, as this is probably the most ancient Christian community in the world today, living in one of the most hostile Islamic nations on earth.  Most of Christian history is written in blood, and for large parts of the world, Christianity lives in varying degrees of religious persecution – it’s only in the West that we have enjoyed religious freedom – for now.

In fact, suffering is one of the main themes in the Scriptures.  Most of the Bible books were written to or about oppressed believers – whether slaves in Egypt, oppressed by Canaanite nations during the period of the judges, or Daniel and his contemporaries as Babylonian or Persian slaves, or the Entire New Testament written when the Church war persecuted by both Roman rule and the Jewish persecution.  Therefore a great number of the examples are recorded in Scripture about individuals of communities suffering, and God’s redemptive response to them.  Regarding these examples Paul writes to the persecuted congregations in Rome: “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).  To the believers of both the Old and the New Testament, suffering was a reality.  This is our legacy.

Yet, for many Christians today, especially in the West, suffering is foreign to their theology.  But we all know the story of Job – probably the most ancient book in the Bible.  Job was a rich and influential man in his day.  He was a worshipper of God, a righteous man who interceded for his family and encouraged others.  Then disaster struck and he lost everything, leaving Job utterly surprised at first, then depressed and angry at God – crying “this is not fair!”  After lamenting his loss (and even his birth), his friend Eliphaz couldn’t keep quite anymore:

4 “Your words have upheld him who was stumbling,
and you have made firm the feeble knees.
But now [suffering] has come to you, and you are impatient;
it touches you, and you are dismayed.
Is not your fear of God your confidence,
and the integrity of your ways your hope?” (Job 4:4-6, ESV)

This sixth verse is a good summery of the theology of Job and three of his friends: the belief that if I worship God and do the right things, nothing bad will happen to me, because God is on my side.  In other words, bad things happen to bad people, good people should not suffer.  We might not say it like this, but this is also a popular theology in our time.  Like Job we are prone to believe that a life of integrity and sincere devotion to God will prevent bad things from happening to us. Then we, like Job, are caught off guard when disaster strikes, so we resort to unhealthy introspection (“What have I done wrong to deserve this?!”) or futile accusation (“Why does God allow this to happen to me?  God is not fair!”). 

When one believes that good standing with God prevents bad things from happening to you, as in Job’s case, suffering brings doubt: it makes you either question yourself (“where have I sinned to bring this suffering on me?”) or question the nature or power of God (“is God fair?” or “is God really there?” or “does God care?”).  This presumption is a pharisaic notion that entrusts the welfare of the self in one’s ability to walk rightly: “if I abide by the rules it will be well with me.”  It places our relationship with God on the contractual plane: “I do my part, God watches over me.

The ninth chapter of John tells of a man born blind. Both the disciples (v2) and the Pharisees (v34) presumed that the man was blind because of his sin, or his parent’s sin, but Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him.”  (John 9:3)  In other words, his suffering had a redemptive purpose from God, and was not the result of someone’s sin.  God had a plan, and it involved the suffering of an individual.

We believe rightly that obedience brings blessings, but Scripture demonstrates repeatedly that righteous people suffer in this life, Jesus even promised that.  But even more clearly the life and death of our Saviour demonstrates that righteous people suffer, accomplishing the will of God. Therefore obedience to God does not prevent suffering in this evil age, and suffering is not always the result of sinful conduct. 

How do we view suffering as Christians?

As mentioned before all of Scripture was written to suffering people, mostly about God’s redemptive intervention into the lives of those suffering.  This is the basis of the Christian worldview: God’s creted everything good, the fall of sin bringing about suffering and death under the reign of Satan, and God redeemed creation by the death of his Son. 

A questions asked many times during periods of hardship is “Where is God in all of this?” to which Phillip Yancey simply answers “God is among his people” (see Revelations 21:3).   As Christ “went about doing good, healing all who were oppressed by the devil” (Acts 10:38) during his life on earth, so Christ’ still today engages suffering with compassion and redemption through and among his people, being his “body” on earth (1 Corinthians 12:12).  The church is and will always be God’s chosen means of addressing suffering in this earth, until Jesus comes to usher in the new heaven and new earth.

So, if the church is God answer to suffering in the world, how do we respond to it?

How do we respond to suffering?

1. We are not surprised

Firstly, Peter wrote to the early church to “not be surprised at the fiery ordeal among you… as though some strange thing were happening to you…” (1 Peter 4:12 ).  We should not be surprised either.  Suffering is normative to all humans, and Christians are not excluded, as our history teaches.  In fact, Jesus promised “in this world you will have trouble, so cheer up!” (John 16:33).  Paul echoed that promise, saying that “all who wish to live a godly life will suffer” (2 Timothy 3:12).  Why can we be so certain to experience suffering?

Although God created a good world, our world is fallen (1 John 5:19), and “the devil walks around like a prowling lion” (1Pet5:8-9) seeking “to kill, steal and destroy” (John 10:10).  But we also know that suffering is not only caused by an enemy “out there” – sin is locked up in every human heart (Romans 3:23), and therefore we humans are the cause of much of the suffering in the world (see Galatians 5:19-21).  Paul taught the Colossians (3:5-11) that greed leads to sexual immorality and (and eventually sexual violence), anger in the heart results in slander and obscenity (and eventually violent abuse). Even a casual observation of society makes one see that greed (or envy) makes one satisfy the desires of self causing suffering of others whether financially, sexually, or by exerting authority (1 John 2:16).  The same can be seen of pride which asserts rights for self at the cost of others, manifesting in of divisions in homes and communities, resulting of all types schisms: sexisms, classisms, sectarianisms, racism.  These in turn spurs hatred, oppression, violence, and a long history of wars as we see in Iraq and Gaza today.  

Do not be surprised when you are struck by suffering, for as long as we are in this world the prince of this word (John 14:30) excerpts his reign of terror and death, working through sinful people who both endure suffering and spread suffering (Ephesians 2:2).

(2) We joyfully endure suffering

New Testament writers teach that our response towards suffering should be joyful.  Jesus said that those who are poor, hungry, thirsty, mourning, persecuted and slandered are blessed: fortunate, well off and happy (acc to Strongs Dictionary; see Matthew 5:3-12, compare 1 Peter 3:14). This happy response is not natural.  However, there are at least six reasons to be joyful in our suffering according to the New Testament.

The first reason for rejoicing in our suffering is the imitation of Christ: since Christ himself suffered unjustly in this life, the early church counted it an honor to suffer like him, even to be identified with him in his death (1 Peter 4:12; Philippians 1:29; 3:10; Hebrews 12:3).  Secondly James motivates a joyful response to suffering because it gives opportunity to grow in godly character (James 1:2-4).  Hardship has the ability to reveal which parts of one’s faith and character are strong and which is not (Hebrews 12:27-28); it has the ability to reveal yourself for who you really are as Peter was brought face-to-face with his own cowardness the evening of Jesus’ arrest (John 13:38; 18:27).  Moreover, bodily suffering rids one of the susceptibility of sinful sensual pleasures (1 Peter 4:1-2), as we know from receiving a hiding as a child.  Thirdly, suffering (especially the threat of death) has a way of focusing the mind on what is really important, bringing the correct eternal perspective to our everyday tasks on earth (Philippians 3:8-9, 14; 2 Corinthians 4:18).  Furthermore, we endure suffering joyfully since we know there are rewards when Christ returns (Matthew 5:12; 16:27; Hebrews 12:1-2; 1 Peter 4:19) – our perseverance and faithfulness amidst hardships will rewarded (See Christ’s letters to the churches in Revelations 2:7, 11, etc).  Lastly, this eternal perspective gives joyful hope since we know that the age of suffering will soon be over, when Christ will usher in the New Earth where  there will be no more tears, no more sickness or poverty, no deceit or rejection, no suffering and enslavement, no violence or death.  Jesus said “in this world you will have trouble, so cheer up!  I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).  Rejoice, for our suffering is temporal.

(3) We work towards its redemptive purpose

Our suffering also has redemptive meaning, and therefore we have to see it as an opportunity from God to be grasped (James 1:2-4).  Jesus taught in the parable of the Sower that trials, temptation and tribulation arises because of the seed, to show the depth of the soil (Mark 4:5-6; Mark 4:16-17).  In other words, God allows difficult times for our sake to show the depth of our character and trust in him – which will otherwise not be known to us.  As an exam shows our depth of understanding in a subject matter, so suffering shows how much we trust God and how much our character has grown to represent Christ. 

In Peter’s case the time of testing rid him of immature flakiness and cowardness, and in turn produced godly character and courage in him (see Luke 22:31).  In Joseph’s case the repetitive injustice and abuse produced a beautiful humility and strength (Genesis 37-41).  In Job’s case, the suffering brought him to the place where he knew God for the first time (Job 42:5-6).

So suffering, Biblically, holds redemptive purpose from God, as Paul teaches “All things work together for the good of those who love God” (Romans 8:19).  Or as Dallas Willard stated it nothing irredeemable has happened to us or can happen to us on our way to our destiny in God’s world.” All suffering can be redeemed by God.  As Christians, our suffering has purpose.

How do we let the suffering fulfill its redemptive purpose? Difficult as it is, we surrender ourselves to God’s work in the suffering in the same way Jesus surrendered himself in the garden of Gethsemane to the cup his Father gave him to drink.  Note that, although Jesus was handed over by jealous, self-righteous Jewish leaders, and crucified by Roman soldiers – he rightly saw his suffering as a bitter cup which God gave him to drink (Matthew 26:42).  

This calls for a re-interpretation of our suffering, acknowledging God the Father has seen it fit to allow the suffering, and that he entrusts you with the suffering (1 Corinthians 10:13).  At some point during his suffering Joseph had to re-interpret his enslavement and imprisonment as a work from God, as he told his brothers who sold him into slavery you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive” (Genesis 50:20).  Paul encouraged the congregation in Corinth to find some meaning in their suffering, to reframe their experience with the words Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.”  (2 Corinthians 1:3-4)  Suddenly, the Corinthian suffering was no longer persecution by the Romans, but a school of comfort and compassion with God as the Teacher.  Moses did the same reframing of the Wilderness wandering as a lesson in humble dependence on God, as well as a test of devotion to God amidst suffering (Deuteronomy 8:2-5 – see a previous post on Not by Bread Alone). 

As we realize our suffering has purpose and is permitted by God for our good and the good of others we entrust ourselves to God, knowing that he has the power to deliver us, and even to sustain us in during these fiery times (1 Peter 4:19; compare with Daniel 3:14-18).     

(4) We Suffer well

Peter admonishes believers under a reign of persecution to follow the example of Christ and suffer honorably, blessing those who hurt you (1 Peter 2:20-23).  He teaches Christians to maintaining their innocence under unjust rulers so that no one can find fault with their conduct, especially pertaining to honoring and obeying the rulers and slave masters as appointed by God himself (1 Peter 2:12-15; 3:9, compare Romans 13:1-7).    We walk worthy of the Lord at all times, and follow his example in suffering.

 (5) We respond prayerfully

 “Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray!” (James 5:13)  Our natural inclination is to pray for an end to the suffering, but in the pursuit of the redemptive purpose of our suffering, Scripture has very helpful examples prayers recorded.   When Jesus warned Peter of his time of testing by Satan, he said “I prayed… that your faith may not fail” (Luke 22:31; compare Ephesians 3:17).  I always pray the same for people going through a very hard time, since people are tempted to abandon their belief in God’s good character and his ability to save them.  The recipients of the letter to the Hebrews (written probably early in Nero’s persecution of Christians around Rome 60 AD) had to be reminded of the same truth, from there the eleventh chapter on the heroes of our faith.

To the church in Ephesus undergoing persecution, Paul prayed three significant things, the first of which was for hope: a revelation of the rich inheritance God has reserved for all believers (Ephesians 1:18). The prayer is that they may know what lies ahead for them beyond this time of suffering, so that they may have something to endure for.  Everyone going through tough times needs something to press on for, otherwise the human spirit wills no more.

Then Paul prays “that you may be strengthened with power through his spirit” (Ephesians 3:16) – for endurance, the ability to persist.  The strength to suffer well, but to push on through this difficult time.

Paul continues to pray “that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may… know the love of God” (Ephesians 3:17-19).  Why pray for love?  Because when suffering prolongs people are tempted to think that God does not love them anymore, that God has forgotten them.  So Paul prays that the suffering congregation may be secured in the awareness of God’s loving devotion towards them, even though the experience pain and grief from suffering.  Elsewhere he writes “nothing can separate you from the love of God…” (Romans 8:39).

Lastly, the Lord’s answer to Paul’s prayers to end his personal suffering gives good guidance for our prayers: pray for sufficient grace amidst the trial (2 Corinthians 12:8-9) – for God’s help and power to sustain one in times of weakness.  His is able to build you up and to give you the inheritance among all those who are sanctified” (Acts 20:32).  In other words this grace carries the one suffering through to the end.

(6) We respond generously

Our last answer to the question “How do Christians respond to suffering?” is found in Apostles’ instruction to Paul and Barnabas regarding their mission to the Gentiles: “remember the poor” (Galatians 2:10).  We read of this practice of collecting goods for suffering, persecuted believers in 2 Corinthians 9:1-7, what John calls “love not just in words, but love in deed and truth” (1 John 3:18).  As the church we respond compassionately and generously with those who suffer.  One avenue for giving to the church suffering persecution in Syria and Iraq is via the disaster management agency relief.life

In this life we will not escape suffering, since the world is fallen, and so are we humans.  Yet we trust God our Father since our life is in his hands, and he is able to deliver us, or sustain us during these trying times.  Therefore we pray to him to reveal and accomplish his redemptive purpose with our suffering.  We joyful endure the suffering because it is good for us – and others – and we remind ourselves that this life is short, and that – for Christians – suffering will end when Christ returns to usher in the New Earth.  And while we wait for That Day, we the Church will follow our Lord’s example to comfort and support those suffering with the same compassion he showed while he walked this earth.