Revelation for the Rest of Us: A Prophetic Call to Follow Jesus as a Dissident Disciple, by Scot McKnight and Cody Matchett (Please support the authors by purchasing the book. The following are highlights from my personal reading).
I can’t take another step without admitting that this speculation stuff was what I believed for a long time. I believed it as a child, as a teen, as a young adult studying theology, and then into my early career as a professor. I believed it. Until I didn’t. I changed my mind not only because every one of the certain predictions I heard from preachers and youth pastors and read in books were wrong. Not just slightly off but totally wrong. I wanted to learn how to read the book of Revelation better, and in so doing I became convinced that the Left Behind approach seriously misreads the book of Revelation and Christian eschatology. We’ll say more about this in the chapters that follow, but I came to see that approach as dangerous for the church. The speculation readings of Revelation teach escapism and fail to disciple the church in the moral dissidence that shapes everything in the amazing book of Revelation. Escapism is as far from Revelation as Babylon is from new Jerusalem.
Speculation is the biggest problem in reading Revelation today. Many treat it as a databank of predictive prophecy—what one Revelation scholar, Christopher Rowland, calls “a repository of prophecies concerning the future.” Readers want to know if now is the time of fulfillment for that symbol, figure, or event. Speculations about who is doing what, sometimes standing on stilts, has ruined Revelation for many.
Four Basic Readings Before getting to those speculative readings of Revelation, a quick sketch of four basic readings of Revelation: Preterists read Revelation as written to first-century churches about first-century topics. Historicists read Revelation as a sketch of the history of the church from the first century until the end. Futurists think Revelation is totally, or nearly entirely, about the future. This approach is populated by the speculators. Idealists read Revelation as timeless images and truths about God, the church, the state, and God’s plan for this world.
Revelation has become a “paradise of fanatics and sectarians”!
Many Americans have experiences of Revelation inducing fear of a global holocaust, with the book providing a roadmap of who does what and when. Experts on the history of reading Revelation as speculation woven into culture have shown that in the middle of the nineteenth century the book of Revelation went populist—that is, it became, as Amy Johnson Frykholm put it, the “ordinary person’s game.” All one needed was a dispensationalist framework, the rapture on the horizon, and a Bible in one hand and news sources (or Left Behind books) in the other. Everything “fit”: politics, international treaties, economic trends, moral decline, family breakdowns. East Coast elites and sophisticated biblical interpretation were easily swept out the church door when the experience of personally knowing the inside story became the norm. Such persons supernaturally knew what no one else knows.
But because of all this, many today have turned down the knob on the music of the book of Revelation. The speculation approach is behind the ordinary dismay with this book, and speculation can be laid at the front door of what is called dispensationalism (see appendix 1, “Dispensationalism’s Seven Dispensations.”) Dispensationalism of the classical sort is a method of reading the Bible in which God forms seven (or so) different covenants with humans—like Adam, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus. Israel, the modern state of Israel, figures big in this scheme. What dispensationalism is known for even more is its belief in the imminent rapture that occurs before a future seven-year tribulation. Sometime near the end of that tribulation, Jesus will come back (the “second coming”), establish a literal one-thousand-year reign on earth, and then at the end of that millennium comes eternity. For dispensationalists the book of Revelation, at least from chapter four on, is entirely about that tribulation. The message of Revelation for many is, “You don’t want to be there when it happens. So get saved and get ready!”
Philip Gorski, in his exceptional book American Covenant, says the speculative, dispensational approach needs criticism not only for how it reads Revelation but also for what it does to the readers. First, it reads the Bible: • Predictively, as an encoded message about future events that can be decoded by modern-day prophets; • Literally, such that the mythical creatures of the text are understood as material realities; • “Premillennially,” with the second coming of Christ understood to precede the earthly ‘millennium’ of God’s thousand-year reign on earth; and • Vindictively, with the punishment of the godless occurring in the most gruesome and violent forms imaginable. He presses on his readers another vital point: this is not how the church throughout its history has read the apocalyptic texts of the Bible. What was apocalyptic and metaphorical and fictional over time became rigidly literal for too many readers.
Gorski really helps us all when he zooms in on what these kinds of readings do to people. “First, it leads to hubris. It seduces its followers into claiming to know things that no human being can possibly know.”
Gorski’s second point stuns. This way of reading the Bible “leads to demonization of others.
Third, it leads to fatalism, suggesting that wars and other calamities are beyond human control.
Finally, and most fatefully, it suggests that the ultimate solution to all problems is a violent one involving the annihilation of one’s enemies.”
Michael Gorman, who wrote one of the most important textbooks on Revelation, concludes that the discipleship of this approach is about • believing in order to escape the Tribulation, • evangelizing to help others escape, • connecting current events to prophecies, • and being ready to die for faith in Jesus.
Nelson Kraybill puts it succinctly: “Many Christians in the West have shut out the book of Revelation after seeing it exploited by cult leaders, pop eschatologists, and end-time fiction writers.”
Gorski’s project reveals that this approach to Revelation partakes far too often in nothing less than American Christian nationalism!
Future Speculations, Excitations, and Frustrations – We’ve been using the term “speculation,” so let’s explain it a bit more. This reading of Revelation obsesses about predictions about the future. That is, one narrows down an image in Daniel or Ezekiel or Revelation to such-and-such leader or to some specific nation. The USA fits into the predictions, and that means we (mostly Protestant, evangelical, white) Christians are the safe ones since we are the saved. The sort of dispensationalism we are talking about specializes in knowing “signs of the times” that are imminent.
Countless students and friends and people have told us this. They’ve had their excitations about the imminent rapture, they’ve heard the predictions, and they’ve seen that every one of them was wrong. Every. One. No. Exceptions.
They are unaware that there is a far more accurate and profoundly relevant way to read Revelation. We’ll tie some of this into a knot of terms: Revelation connected to speculation leads to excitation, and excitations lead to expectations, and expectations unfulfilled lead to frustrations. Frustrations lead to realizations that have led many to say, “There’s something big-time wrong with these speculations.”
The book is for all times because it is about all time. The flexibility of the book to give Christians a sense of direction and meaning throughout church history is the big clue to a different approach. The clue is that Revelation is timeless theology not specific prediction, and the moment it turns to specific predictions it loses its timeless message.
Why Is the Predictive Reading So Popular? 1. Fulfilled prophecies validate a person’s faith. 2. It resolves theological tensions: this world is not my home, this world remains my home for a while; God is in control, but I can choose, etc. 3. Predictive theology is by the people for the people instead of professionals. 4. History has meaning and a plan. 5. It offers utopian hope with a perfected social order. Paul Boyer, When Time Shall Be No More, 293–324
So, Revelation for the Rest of Us – The Apocalypse is not about prediction of the future but perception and interrogation of the present. It provides readers with a new lens to view our contemporary world. What if Revelation is what another scholar on Revelation, Greg Carey, thinks it is? “Monsters characterize imperial brutality; cosmic portents reflect social injustice; heavenly glories display the rule of the transcendent over the ordinary.”
“The last book of the Bible is not a catalog of predictions about events that would take place two thousand years later. Rather, it is a projector that casts archetypal images of good and evil onto a cosmic screen.” Wow, that line leads us to a fresh reading of Revelation.
A dissident is someone who takes a stand against official policy in church or state or both, who dissents from the status quo with a different vision for society. We need a generation of dissident disciples who confront and resist corruption and systemic abuses in whatever locations they are found: • corruption in the countries of the world, • our churches’ complicities in these corruptions, • and the reading of Revelation as speculation, which blunts our prophetic voice.
The book of Revelation, when read well, forms us into dissident disciples who discern corruptions in the world and church. Conformity to the world is the problem. Discipleship requires dissidence when one lives in Babylon.
As Greg Beale says, Revelation may be the most relevant book in the entire Bible, speaking to us today with its exhortations for “God’s people to remain faithful to the call to follow the Lamb’s paradoxical example and not to compromise.” But to discern its relevance we must stop our speculations and excitations—with their toothless approaches to discipleship—and our obsessions over being raptured or left behind, and we must go to prison with John.
Revelation records a timeless battle between two cities: Babylon and new Jerusalem. It’s a battle between two lords: The Lord of lords, Jesus, and the lord of the empire, the emperors of Rome. It’s a battle between hidden forces: angels and those in heaven against the dragon and his many-headed beasts (or wild things), and armies on both sides.1 Babylon loses and new Jerusalem wins. It takes imagination to believe this is true.
Yet John must have believed his listeners, those who heard the reading of this book, would comprehend what he had written. With one eye on Rome and the other eye on these seven churches, John chose to communicate with them in a way that has had a lasting—and sometimes bizarre—legacy.
Their songs were subversive, pointing to a different hope, and their witness announced a different Lord. There was something about them that made those in power nervous, so they began at the top with a plan to eliminate the most influential Christian in western Asia Minor: a Jew who believed Jesus was the Messiah. They shipped him off to a remote island, no doubt thinking this would put an end to this dissident. Except it didn’t.
In the book of Revelation John instructs the seven churches of western Asia Minor on how to live as Christian dissidents in an empire racked by violence, power, exploitation, and arrogance. “Follow the Way of the Lamb” thumps the drumbeat of this book. Yet many discussions of Revelation completely miss this key message. Michael Gorman is right: Revelation “is not about a rapture out of this world but about faithful discipleship in this world.”
A dissident is a person of hope, someone who imagines a better, future world, and then begins to embody that world. It’s someone who speaks to promote that better, future vision and against what is wrong in the present.
We are either thermometers reflecting the temperature of the world or thermostats adjusting that temperature. But we are only nonconformists, he warned his audiences in Montgomery, if we have been transformed in Christ.
We might call John a double dissident because he had his eyes on the evil powers at work in the empire as well as those same powers at work in the church. He saw too much Rome in the church, and not enough church in Rome.
What’s important to understand is that John, too, was a dissident, a prophetic voice in a long line of dissident voices speaking about the negative influence of Rome in the church. Too many of the churches were floating along with cultural buoyancy, wrongly assuming that all was fine. They believed they could follow Jesus and still be 100% culturally respected. They thought they could live like Rome and enter the new Jerusalem. John saw through their errant beliefs and spoke up and spoke out. It’s one thing to talk trash about Rome—the obvious enemy—behind closed doors, but it’s another to diss your own churches.
But while he is dispensing grubs to the churches, he’s also got his eyes on Rome and the other churches he pastors. Because John spoke against Rome, he became an imprisoned dissident. Because he spoke against the churches, some saw his imprisonment as a relief. This is one of the keys to reading Revelation well—that we understand the dual critique of the church and the empire. Reading Revelation well requires recognizing that Revelation has much to say; it makes no sense until we first see how it speaks a powerful encouragement to be dissident disciples.
Revelation is a visionary, auditory experience interpreted for the seven churches, the result of an artistic and graphic imagination. That’s not to say that what John saw did not happen. It’s simply to note that his experience was interpreted and mediated through what is written.
Putting this all together is what we mean when we say John used his “imagination.” We don’t mean imagination in the sense of making something up—as in writing a fictional story. Instead, we mean the creative process of communication, where something real stimulated his imagination and then something he says to communicate that experience stimulates ours. Remember: it takes imagination to read Revelation rightly.
Imagination John’s strategy was to write an “apocalypse” (the Greek apokalypsis means “unveiling,” “revealing”). An apocalypse, by design, is an imagination-stimulating genre. Apocalypses reveal to humans God’s plan for the world. They inform readers that what they think is real is not as real as they think, that there is a deeper reality, that the world is not what it seems to be. And in reading, the unfathomable becomes clear.
Our point is that good readers of Revelation will read it more like The Lord of the Rings than Paul’s letter to the Romans. We should let the bowls empty out and the trumpets blast; we should visualize the fall of Babylon and the woman of Revelation zooming and leaping and spinning and twirling—if you want to read this book well. The writer John used his imagination to see what he saw, and it takes an imagination to engage his. Too many readings of Revelation are flat-footed and literal. But as Greg Stevenson, an expert on Revelation, says, “Revelation symbolically transforms the world into a battlefield in which the forces of the dragon are arrayed against the forces of God.”
Imagination also comforts the oppressed, the discouraged, the seeker, and the wanderer. When we engage the flood of images Revelation offers us and experience them with our senses, it encourages us to trudge through the deep icy snows of discouragement and stimulates faith in the God who really is the Lord of lords and King of kings—even when dictators and tyrants ruin our society.
John operates with two opposing sides as well. On one side is God and the Lamb and the Seven Spirits, the woman, the seven churches, allegiant witnesses, the four living things, the twenty-four elders, and the good angels—all of whom are marching toward the kingdom of God or the new Jerusalem. On the other side is the dragon, the wild things, and their demonic and human servants—all of whom are embodied in Babylon. To read Revelation well, we will need to get to know John’s characters as our companions.
“Choose your team!” is one of John’s rhetorical strategies. Choose Team Lamb and you become a dissident who resists Team Dragon. Dissidents soon learn how many are on Team Lamb, and they begin to discern the manifold ploys and plots of Team Dragon. They also learn, as they speak up and speak out on how to resist Team Dragon.
Three principles for reading Revelation well are now on the table: 1. It’s not written for speculators—for those looking for a decoder ring to interpret newspaper headlines. 2. It is written for dissidents—for followers of Christ ready to challenge the powers of world and empire. 3. And it requires imagination—engaging our senses and minds with the performance that is Revelation, with all of its rich images and intriguing characters. Now, we turn to a fourth principle, which brings all three principles together: we must understand the Playbill, or the Cast of Characters, of Revelation. The Book of Revelation puts a number of characters on the stage, each becoming a “character” in the drama. Each deserves to be understood for their role. To understand Revelation, one must grasp what John means—to take the first example of a character in the Playbill—with “Babylon.” If you wait until you meet this character in chapter 17 to think about Babylon, you will have a thin reading of the first sixteen chapters.
John’s cast of characters are assigned to one of two teams, summarized in the playbill pages that follow: TEAM LAMB: God and the Lamb and the Seven Spirits, the woman, the seven churches, allegiant witnesses, the four living things, the twenty-four elders, and angels, all designed for new Jerusalem TEAM DRAGON: The dragon and the beasts, which I translate throughout as “the wild things”—there are two of them—all inhabiting Babylon (kings and merchants and sailors and anyone who chooses to have the mark of the wild thing, and John names some others: the Nicolaitans and Balaam and Jezebel)
These two teams are engaged in a cosmic battle with one another, what Paul Minear refers to as “sovereignties in conflict.” One can’t read Revelation well or make Revelation come alive in our world until we understand John’s multilayered cosmic universe and the characters who are both visible and invisible.
It’s important for us to see that this throne-room vision fundamentally determines the message of the entire Apocalypse: God is on the Throne, Caesar is not, Babylon will go down, and someday justice will be established in the new Jerusalem.
John here is not offering us prediction, but revelation, making an appeal through our perception and engaging our imagination.
The centralizing of all this power has one purpose: to fight the Lamb. The Lamb will win, of course, and John tells us this in 17:14 to calm down our excitations.
John ups and tells us what he means: “The woman . . . is the great city that rules over the kings of the earth” (17:18, italics added). So we now have everything in this vision identified: the woman is Babylon, the woman is sitting on the wild thing, the wild thing operates on seven hills with seven kings (make that ten more kings), and the wild thing is a king too! The wild thing hates the Lamb, but the Lamb will be victorious, and Babylon, “the great city,” will burn to the ground. It would have taken very little imagination in John’s day to recognize that this so-called great city is Rome, but it may shock today’s reader to know that this is the most repugnant, hostile portrait of the “eternal city” in the ancient world.
For example, not that long before the writing of Revelation, Peter is in Rome and he calls Rome “Babylon”: “She who is in Babylon, chosen together with you, sends you her greetings” (1 Pet 5:13).
John has morphed Roma—an image of Roman pride and glory—into “the mother of prostitutes, Babylon the great.” If so, John turns Rome’s own image of itself inside out and upside down.
Why Babylon? These two-and-a-half chapters in Revelation (17–19) are all about Rome, and John makes that clear in the last verse of Revelation 17 when he says Babylon is the “great city” (17:18), the city of “seven hills” (17:9). A first-century person would have quite naturally connected the woman sitting on seven hills to the common Roman coin depicting Roma, the goddess, sitting on seven hills.
But again, why not just say this? Why call her Babylon? And the answer is because John isn’t just speaking about Rome, but he is connecting Rome and the empire to the ongoing story of God’s people. Babylon became for Jews and early Christians the most graphic image, metaphor, or trope for a city filled with arrogance, sin, injustice, oppression of God’s people, and idolatry.
Today, if you want to insult a leader you would call him a “Hitler” or “Stalin.” If you want to insult the integrity of an athlete you might call them a “Pete Rose.” In the Jewish world of John, you would insult a woman with the label “Jezebel” and a man by calling him “Balaam.” But if you wanted to insult an entire city and mock its powers, you pulled out the “Babylon” card.
To use “Babylon” to refer to the reigning powers of the world was very, very Jewish.
Babylon is chosen because that specific city from that specific time in Israel’s history became a trope for the powers that oppressed, took captive, and killed the people of God.
Babylon for All Times – This leads us to an important observation and another principle for reading Revelation well: Babylon is a timeless trope. Jews knew of the original city of Babylon as a specific event from their own story. But from that time onward they had their eyes open for the presence of the next Babylon and other Babylons to follow. Whenever they saw an oppressing nation or an enslaving power, they saw Babylon all over again. Whenever they saw their country besieged and their city (Jerusalem) attacked or exploited, they remembered Babylon. Babylon was more than a one-time event—it was timeless for Jews.
Babylon is as present to John as Patmos. Babylon was not some future city for him.
Babylon is always here—even today. Babylon is an image, a metaphor, a trope Jews used for empires that oppress and persecute the covenant people. As a trope, Babylon names empires that oppress those who walk in the way of the Lamb. When we turn later in this book to the story at work in the book of Revelation and look at its timeline, we will need to depict Babylon as timeless. And this means: Babylon accompanies the church as it moves through church history.
“Babylon exists wherever sociopolitical power coalesces into an entity that stands against the worship of YHWH alone.”
We will meet the dragon’s violent ways in the militaries of major empires and nations—in airplanes, in submarines, in warships, in bombs, in nuclear warheads, in nerve gasses, in alliances of nations, and in internet terrorism.
We encounter the dragon and Babylon in spiritual, moral, cultural, political, economic, and educational degradations that bring death, that block freedoms, that are designed by the wild things to yield allegiance to the dragon.
Many of those reading Revelation speculatively point their fingers at Russia or Iran or Iraq and fail to see Babylon in their own country. Yet as Michael Gorman has gone to pains to demonstrate, the USA has earmarks of empire in its exceptionalism, nationalism, colonialism, and militarism.
A Word for the Church Too – The biggest problem facing the seven churches was Babylon. And the biggest problem we still face in our churches today is Babylon. Babylon is past and it is now; it is tomorrow and it is future as well. But it is only the future because Babylon is always.
Babylon’s Characteristics – Babylon means military might, exploiter of the economy, and oppressor of the people of God. But there’s more to this image than just an external threat to God’s people. Babylon is also present in the various sins of the seven churches. The storyline of the book of Revelation is about wiping out the sins of Babylon so there can be a new Jerusalem. Dissident disciples have their eyes trained to discern the signs of Babylon, and they recognize the sinister symptoms of something disordered.
Revelation reveals the plan of God to wipe the world clean of evil by defeating the dragon, wrangling the wild things, and taking down Babylon. It takes readers into the heart of evil, defeats it, and leads us triumphantly to the world’s true destiny: the new Jerusalem, the city that flows with peace and justice.
These seven signs manifest idolatries and injustices, but if one wants to reduce them to their core they express a corrupted, corrupting civil religion and spiritualized politics. To quote again from Richard Bauckham, here is his thematic statement for the seven characteristics of Babylon: Absolute power on earth is satanic in inspiration, destructive in its effects, idolatrous in its claims to ultimate loyalty.
In one word: domination. The one who follows the Lamb toward new Jerusalem discerns and resists the claims to absolute power by Babylon.
1. Anti-God (for Jews and Christians) – Babylon formed an anti-God way of life into a rigid system. Jews and Christians had long denounced common idolatries (Isa 40–55; Wis 13–15; Acts 12:21–23; Rom 1:18–32). What they witnessed throughout the ancient world were gods and kings, even kings as gods, revered in temples.
There was no distinction made between military might, political rulers and emperors, politics, and religion. Empire and religion were woven together into a seamless whole.
2. Opulent Babylon luxuriated in opulence, indulgence, entertainment, and games. John tells us that Babylon “was dressed in purple and scarlet, and was glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls” (Rev 17:4). The rich got richer as the poor remained in their crowded, beggarly, and ignored condition.
One of the best ways to communicate the ugliness of opulence is through hyperbole!
3. Murderous – What Rome called pax Romana, or the peace of Rome, was really the subjugation of enemies through violent conquer or surrender. To be emperor over a large empire, one needed the chops of military victories, and the more impressive the enemy, the more status accrued to the emperor.
4. Image – By all accounts Babylon impressed the watching world with its strategies, engineers, and architecturally brilliant temples, palaces, buildings, theaters, and sporting spectacles. Roads and aqueducts crisscrossed the empire. Marble-shaped-images were everywhere. The monumental buildings testified to the impressive glory of Rome, its victories, and its leaders.2 Those who saw the power and glory and reach of Babylon (=Rome) were stunned—everyone except the dissidents, the oppressed, the slaves, those captured, and the poor. In other words, most everyone!
That’s exactly what Babylon wanted (and has always wanted)—to be an object of awe, astonishment, and praise.
Dissidents of Babylon learn to discern and resist the intoxicating allure of cultivating image and persona.
5. Militaristic – Rome accumulated all it had through military might and power. Rome tellingly rejected the use of “king” (rex) for its premier leader, instead preferring the title “emperor,” a translation of imperator, referring to military commanders. The ruler of Rome was the most powerful man in the world, and as the world’s mightiest man he was a militarist.
Dissidents discern in the exploitations of other humans—whether man, woman, or child—a mark of Babylon.
6. Economically Exploitative – Rome, aka Babylon, aggregated, accumulated, exploited, taxed, and traded—and this was a daily experience throughout the empire. Mosaics in Pompeii show that on the houses you could read on the floor “Hello Profit!” or “Profit is Happiness!” The poor resented the wealthy as much, if not more, in western Asia Minor as they did anywhere else, and the poor agitated for redistribution. The blistering criticisms of Revelation 18 then fit quite well with the social conditions of the time. The injustices of exploitation simmered just below the surface of Roman society.
One writer even quipped that you could travel the world to see what it has to offer or you could go to Rome and see it all there. The merchants sold what Babylon was buying with a ceaseless flow toward Rome. Dissidents today are also attuned to recognize the excesses of economic exploitation and consumerism.
7. Arrogant – The previous six signs of Babylon could all be rolled up into this one. Rome turned its arrogance into a virtue. “In her heart,” John knows by discernment, “she boasts, ‘I sit enthroned as queen. I am not a widow; I will never mourn’” (Rev 18:7). The Old Testament prophet Isaiah says nearly the same thing about the original Babylon: “You said, ‘I am forever—the eternal queen!’” (Isa 47:7); and she said “I am [that’s blasphemy in the highest], and there is none besides me. I will never be a widow or suffer the loss of children” (47:8). Arrogance begins at the top of the empire, or rather, the system rewards the arrogant and lines up everyone else in a hierarchy of status.
This boasting falls directly opposite the cross of Jesus and his way of life. Jesus’s victory came by means of a hideous crucifixion—the way of the Lamb. Augustus exposes for all to see the way of the dragon—self-adulation, human accomplishment, and false humility. His rule and way of life exist through power, through violence, through murder, and through the exploitation of others for the sake of indulgence and opulence.
Summary If we had to choose a single term for Babylon, we’d focus on the militaristic drive to conquer and select the term “domination.” Domination unto death is the way of the dragon.
These set the tone for how Babylon penetrated the seven churches, and we should reflect on how they continue to be expressed in churches today. Remember, dissidents discern Babylon—they develop a Babylonian hermeneutic.
The Dragon and Its Wild Things – Babylon presents itself as the powerful order of strength, but behind Babylon are the dragon and the wild things. We’ve offered a brief introduction to each of these characters in the playbill, but here we want to unpack that further. Babylon, in short, is the systemic order of power created by the dragon and the wild things.
The dragon’s mission is clear: it wants the woman’s baby boy, the Son of God who is to rule, and it wants the Son dead.
The war is on between Team Dragon and Team Lamb. Notice the astounding opening in Revelation 12:7: there is a war in heaven! One can’t read that and not think of John Milton’s battles in Paradise Lost, or those of J. R. R. Tolkien or C. S. Lewis between good and evil. This is the stuff of the world’s great stories and myths.
That last verse we cited, Revelation 12:17, speaks of going to war with the offspring of the woman. The seven characteristics of Babylon manifest the way of the dragon, which battles against the way of the Lamb. One can’t read Revelation well without embracing the cosmic, even mythic, battle between Team Dragon and Team Lamb.
Dissident disciples are the first to realize they are in a battle—not with flesh and blood, but with the principalities and powers that snake their way into the seven churches. Some readers of Revelation, however, turn Revelation 12 into little more than a symbolic battle between abstract good and abstract evil. But the dragon can’t be reduced to a symbol of evil. The dragon is the ultimate agent of evil.
The Wild Things: #1 and #2 One of the biggest mistakes we can make in reading Revelation is spending too much time speculating on the precise predictive identity of the wild thing (or the antichrist; see appendix 3), the mask of the dragon. Who will it be? Luther and Calvin thought it was the pope, as have many zealot Protestants since (and some still today).
These speculators were all wrong, and they’ve all been wrong because they lack the kind of imagination a faithful reading of Revelation requires, wanting to reduce everything to literal predictions.
We are not looking for figures by predicting specific persons in the future; rather, we are looking for images of dragon-like leaders at work in all societies and all times. They are puppets, whose strings are pulled by the dragon. Remember, these images are not about predicting the future, but about shaping our perceptions of the present.
There are two wild things in Revelation 13, one from the sea and one from the earth. Wild thing #1 emerges from the sea, a picture of chaos and the ancient abyss (see 11:7). Wild thing #1 is all about power while wild thing #2 is about propaganda. Both of them do their work behind closed doors in the dragon’s Babylon, creating a propaganda machine to control and dominate.
666 Many readers of Revelation today get snagged in the 666 web of speculation (Rev 13:16–18), wondering what such a number means, how numbers like this worked in John’s world, and to whom 666 might apply today.
Who will it be? is not the right question to ask, though. Rather, we should ask Who was it for John? and Who might it be for us?
To begin, we go back to the time when the Book of Revelation was written. Nero Caesar, in Greek Nerōn kaisar, adds up to 666 when translated into Hebrew: 50+200+6+50+100+60+200 = 666! Some manuscripts of Revelation here do not have the number 666 but instead 616, and if one drops off the second “n” in Nerōn that name then totals 616!
But Nero is not alone in satisfying such a calculation, because 666 is also the numerical value of the word thērion, which is the Greek word for “beast” or “wild thing.” This was likely all great fun for the first readers of Revelation.
Like Babylon, 666 does not point to one person at one future moment in history but to all political tyrants who have the powers to establish the way of the dragon and oppress Team Lamb.
The Lamb – The believers to whom Revelation was originally written lived in Babylon—that is, the Roman Empire. Their entire lives—bodies, minds, and spirits—were swamped by Babylon. Those believers become faithful witnesses to Jesus as Lord by following the Lamb as residents in Babylon. And faithful discipleship, a life that mirrors Christ, who is the Lamb, is still about being a witness to Jesus as a resident in this world. Discipleship is about Lamb-like living.
This term, following, is used in the Gospels for the disciples as well. The faithful follow Jesus in the way of the Lamb—into a witness that can lead to suffering and even death, and into the way of victory over those who oppose the Lamb.
But if discipleship is really about following the Lamb, what are the characteristics of the Lamb that we are to follow? John gives us a multifaceted depiction of Jesus in the book of Revelation, and he is the one whom disciples are to follow by resisting Babylon.
We are only through the first eight verses of this book, and already Jesus fills a theological textbook with ideas and concepts about his identity and mission!
In other words, the book of Revelation is first and foremost a revelation about Jesus.
John’s Jesus is altogether splendorous. And again, his words are soaked in Old Testament imagery: a long, priest-like robe with a golden sash, snow-white hair like Daniel 7, eyes of fire and glowing feet like Daniel 10, and a resonant, reverberating voice like Ezekiel 1.
The Lord Because of the flow of this book, we need to always keep our eyes on what John said in 1:5: Jesus is “the ruler [archōn] of the kings of the earth.” He is, in other words, the Lord of lords. Living into this requires both a comic and cosmic imagination, especially for those living outnumbered as allegiant witnesses to Jesus. In today’s terms, you might hear an echo of someone in these churches yelling out “Booyah!”
John is saying that Jesus is there with them, alive and speaking, and they should hear him speaking as the one true ruler of the world, the Lord of lords! They should declare allegiance to him, walk in the way of the Lamb, and resist the dragon by refusing to walk in the way of Babylon.
Pause with us one more time: what strikes the reader of Revelation 1 is not speculation about who will be whom, who will do what, in which nation, and at what date. What strikes the reader is the overwhelming majesty of Jesus, God’s Son, the Messiah, the King of kings and the world’s only true Emperor of emperors. The followers of the Lamb hearing this book performed are over the moon in joyous rapture at the prospect of a world run by Jesus—a world John calls the new Jerusalem. This Jesus is the one who calls people to follow him by resisting the lords of Rome and walking in the way of the Lord of lords.
The Lion The vision of John shifts from Jesus to the churches in chapters 1, 2, and 3, and then to the Throne-God in chapter 4, and then back to Jesus all over again in chapter 5. But in chapter five the lordly images describing Jesus in Revelation 1–3 morph from a Lion into the Lamb. We’ll start with the Lion.
The Lamb – Something odd happens in chapter 5 that transforms the message of the book of Revelation. One of the elders informs John that only the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, had triumphed and so only he can crack open the scroll (perhaps “little scroll”). John wants us to see with the eyes of our imagination again—to picture the Lion romping forward to grab hold of the scroll. But no, that’s not how it happens. Instead, there is a morphing, a transformation: “Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne” (5:6, italics added).
The Lion becomes the Lamb. And it is a bizarre lamb, with three sevens: “seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth” (5:6). The Lamb “took the scroll from the right hand” of God (5:7). Then two groups (four living creatures and twenty-four elders) erupt into worship of the Lamb.
Why the transformation? It’s easy to follow a fierce lion, but who wants to follow a lamb? The Lamb, they sing, is worthy, not because he headbutted someone off the stage. No, he is worthy because he was slain, and by being slain, the Lamb “purchased” a universal people of God, and they—not Babylon’s lords—will be a “kingdom and priests to serve our God.” What’s more, the Lamb’s followers “will reign on the earth” (5:10). The Lord of Revelation 1:5, you will remember, is the “ruler of the kings of the earth.” That Lord, that Lion, is the Lamb.
Their Lamb is really a Lion who wins with a sword in his fist in a noisy, bloody battle at Armageddon. Their Christology distorts the book, because they are driven by speculations about when this will happen, where it will happen, and who will be the antichrist. The Lion is a Lamb who wins (as we are about to see) not with a sword in a bloody battle but with a nonviolent weapon, namely the Word of God.
But what does it mean to say that the Lamb was a slain lamb? Remember how we morphed from a fierce, powerful, death-dealing Lion to a vulnerable, defenseless Lamb?
Two more observations about the slaughtered Lamb. Jesus’s way of life, the Lion-Lamb way of life, forms the paradigm for his followers, so it comes as no surprise that followers of Jesus are also slain or slaughtered. Notice these two verses: When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. (6:9) In her [Babylon] was found the blood of prophets and of God’s holy people, of all who have been slaughtered on the earth. (18:24)
Babylon’s way is the way of sword and violence. The way of the Lamb is to speak up and about Jesus in the midst of Babylon, come what may. What may come is the Lamb’s way of ultimate witness: martyrdom. The Lamb wages war, not with a sword in his fist, but with a sword coming from his mouth and with a life that embodies resistance to the lords of Babylon.
The Logos – John’s Jewish contemporaries prayed and memorized the book of Psalms as their prayer book. Words from Psalm 44 formed in the memories of God’s people a picture of God as warrior and Israel’s “victories” coming not because of their own power or swords but from God.
In Revelation the Lamb wins the war.
There is a gruesome battle with a paradox: the “deaths” at the hand of the Lamb are by the Word, the Logos, and not by a sword in the king’s fist. And here’s why. The way of the Lamb is not the way of Babylon and its dragon. The latter is the way of power and might, violence and bloodshed, murder and arrogance, and the exploitation of human bodies. In a previous chapter we looked at the militarism of Babylon. Militarism is not the way of the Lamb. Instead, the Lamb wins by losing, and his losing liberates others. The Lamb liberates by giving his life, and the Lord wins the battle with the Word, the Logos. Some interpreters of the book of Revelation relish the battle descriptions as literal, physical, military battles with incalculable bloodshed held at a place called Armageddon. When we read such interpreters, we should wonder if their heart has been cauterized. Because while the images of battle in Revelation 6–18 look like physical battles, they are really apocalyptic fictions, images that dance before our eyes and imaginations to tell us that the Lamb will win. And the Bible tells us the Lamb wins with the Word. Winners with the Word deconstruct winners with the sword, and they will win at the parousia of Jesus, or his second coming or return (see appendix 4, “Armageddon”).
The Rider is called “Faithful and True,” which is what Jesus is called in 3:14: “the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation.” Unlike Babylon, who is drunk on the blood of God’s people, Jesus will bring justice, as was predicted of the Messiah in Isaiah 11. Like Daniel 10:6 and Revelation 1:14, he has fiery eyes. This image means that he is coming to purge evil from God’s creation. He is not wearing “crowns,” as the NIV has, but rather “diadems,” which are worn as a symbol of kingship. Roman emperors wore wreaths, not diadems, because the former symbolized victory and the latter kingship. The way of the Lamb is not the way of the dragon or Babylon.
The Lion is the Lamb, the Word of God, who is the Emperor and Lord over all the earth’s lordless lords. He will win and he will reign. There will be a great victory feast, a final judgment, and a splendorous city descending from heaven, the new Jerusalem.
The Faithful Witnesses – The Throne-God wins, the Lord-Lion-Lamb-Logos wins, and the Seven Spirits win. The dragon and the wild things lose. The book of Revelation, however, is not just about a spiritual battle in the heavens, as was sketched out for us in Revelation 12. The apocalypse takes place on earth too, as the battle for allegiance, truth, and power. Babylon and new Jerusalem form the two encampments while the dragon and the Lamb lead troops of wild things and faithful witnesses.
The faithful witnesses declare their allegiance to the Lamb and walk in the way of the Lamb as dissidents of Babylon. Faithful to the Lamb, they witness to the Lamb, speaking up and speaking out and sometimes suffering.
The Woman – As we saw with the Lord, Lion, and Lamb, there are images that will morph and shift in Revelation. This is what we see happening with the woman of Revelation 12. She is first Israel or perhaps Eve, and then she becomes Mary, mother of Jesus, and then she becomes the church.
Losing yet again, the dragon surrenders to the woman and chooses to battle “the rest of her offspring” (12:17). These children of the woman are the faithful witnesses of the seven churches: “Those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus” (12:17).
This approach to Revelation distorts the meaning of what John wrote in a number of ways, not least these two. First, these are wildly inaccurate descriptions of the periods themselves. And second, John thinks of these churches as coexisting and contemporary. There is not a shred or scrap of evidence that John sees them as future churches. Everything about Revelation speaks directly to John’s own day and how John’s churches can live faithfully in Babylon (Rome). The biggest problem with this interpretation also damns the entire approach: it fails to comprehend the historic global church.
We encounter: the seven seals (6:1–8:1), the seven trumpets (8:2–11:19), and seven shallow bowls (15:1–16:21). Three plus ten. Ten interludes interrupt three cycles of seven judgments (7:1–8, 9–17; 8:3–5; 10:1–11; 11:1–14; 12; 13; 14:1–13, 14–19; 15:2–4).
There’s nothing controversial about breaking the book of Revelation into these major sections. The controversy begins when we ask, How are we to read the book’s narrative plot and flow? How do the characters of the playbill come together to form the plot? Previously, we noted four basic principles for reading Revelation well: (1) it’s not for speculators; (2) it is for dissidents; (3) it requires imagination; (4) and we need to know the basic characters. Now we add a fifth principle: (5) it is vitally important that we locate these characters within the dramatic narrative.
The three most significant elements of classic dispensationalism are: First, an emphasis on a literal reading of Revelation. And it must be added that those who urge this claim that they alone read Revelation “literally.” Not a few of us would describe this as flat-footed. Second, classic dispensationalism teaches a prophetic or prediction-heavy reading that seeks to locate Revelation on the world’s stage. Think of looking for the signs of Revelation as you scroll through your Twitter feed. Third, add to these first two a chronological reading that sees chronological steps progressing all the way from chapter 6 to the end of the book.
But there are several reasons why this reading is most unlikely. To begin with, the word “prophetic” does not have to mean “prediction.” Pick up your Bible, read the prophets of Israel, and you will see immediately that they are speaking to their own day as much as they are speaking to the future. It’s a both-and way of speaking.
No one literally thinks any of these beasts have seven heads or that some sword will zoom from Jesus’s mouth when he speaks. Some things are “literal” and others “symbolic,” and both sides interpret in both ways. Not to mention that John himself does not see what he is describing as future but considers himself to be a fellow participant in the so-called great tribulation (1:9).
Life—past, present, future—is not a product of random chaos, nor is it the result of fate or blind luck. No, in the story of everything, the world is God’s world, time is in God’s hands, history has a beginning, and God guides history toward its divine intention: the new Jerusalem or the kingdom of God. Such a worldview colors one’s perception of every moment and counters every other worldview. To the degree that those seven churches lived according to the story of everything, they had to live in two worlds.
Here is the only secret you need to reading Revelation: this book is about the Lamb’s final, complete defeat of the dragon and its Babylons and the establishment of new Jerusalem.
For there to be an uncontested new Jerusalem, there must no longer be a Babylon warring with the Lamb.
The book is not about finding joy in unbelievers getting their comeuppance, but about the defeat of the dragon and the systemic evils in Babylon. The celebration is not personal vengeance but cosmic justice. It’s a colossal cosmic relief for the dragon to be defeated so the splendor can all go to the Lamb and the One on the throne.
Everything in the New Testament, from Matthew to Revelation, utilizes the backstory of Israel. John alludes to the Old Testament prophets constantly because their story is his story. Well, that’s not quite right. It’s better to say their story becomes his story, and his story takes that backstory and reframes the entire story of Israel as one headed toward the new Jerusalem.
The Backstory of Israel Includes: Creation, promise, covenant, the plagues and the exodus, law, temple, kings and prophets, exile, and return. It’s essential in reading Revelation to have some familiarity with the backstory of Israel. This means readers of Revelation need to know the characters and formative events of the Bible: Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Israel, Moses, David, Solomon, and the prophets. Along with these characters, readers of Revelation also need to know about the events of the backstory: creation, promise, covenant, law, tabernacle and temple, kings and prophets, law, exile, return, and how specific events like Passover, the plagues, the exodus, and entering the land became paradigms for God’s redemption in this world.
The Story So Far – Jesus radically adjusted the backstory of Israel in two ways. First, he added several events with his own life and actions. And second, the entire backstory became a new story because Jesus taught his followers that the backstory anticipated and was fulfilled in him! The “first” testament becomes a “second” testament because of Jesus, and John updates Jesus’s and the other apostles’ versions of the backstory into the story so far.
The Story So Far Includes: Creation, promise, covenant, law, temple, kings and prophets, exile, and return. Adds Jesus: His birth, life, teachings, miracles, apostles, last week, death, resurrection, ascension, and second coming.
The Final Story – Just as Jesus adjusted the story of Israel, so the final story provided by John in the Apocalypse adjusts the story so far yet again! But there’s something in John’s story that also tells us where we are in the story and how we should live as allegiant witnesses in today’s Babylons. Revelation’s Final Story Includes: Creation, promise, covenant, law, temple, kings and prophets, exile, and return. Adds Jesus: His birth, life, teachings, miracles, apostles, last week, death, resurrection, ascension, and return. Adds some final details: Babylon, dragon, and wild things; One on the throne, Lamb, Seven Spirits, three times seven judgments, Babylon defeated, and new Jerusalem.
Three Stories in Which We Find Ourselves Today – The Bible’s story of everything transcends what the world offers us. In a recent and brilliant study of the stories told by Americans, Philip Gorski proposes the existence of three basic storylines: radical secularism, Christian nationalism, and civil religion.
First, and the easiest for most Christians to reject, is radical secularism. This storyline explicitly wants God out of the public square and Christians to cease with their God-shaped moral visions. Instead, it wants a secular ethic rooted in reason that engages all people neutrally in the public square. For believers this is impossible, not least because everything we think and do flowers from our faith (or at least it ought to).
The second story popular today flips this first script on its head: Christian nationalism. In this story, the USA is a Christian nation, and its laws and government ought to reflect to one degree or another their Christian foundations. Accompanying this story is the necessity of violence wielded to maintain this Christian foundation and framework. Such an approach finds affinity, according to Philip Gorski, with the conquest narratives of the Old Testament, especially those we read in Joshua. Christian nationalists read the book of Revelation as the paradigm of earthly war and defeat, and their perspective on the place of government and its role emerges from the premillennial dispensational approach to Revelation. However extreme it was, January 6, 2021, illustrates such an approach.
Gorski himself contends for a third storyline, what he calls civil religion, which he contends draws from both the secular Western world of “civic republicanism” but also the biblical world of “prophetic religion.” These are the current options we in the West either grow up with or into. Three stories that help us make sense of the world around us and how we should engage in the public square—yet none of them offer us what Jesus and the apostles and John’s story of everything offer. Each of these stories has something to teach us, but none of them are fully satisfying.
John does not adjudicate how to engage in politics. Instead, John instructs Christians how to discern the moral character of governments and politicians and policies and laws. John takes the stance of a dissident disciple who lives out of a story unlike anything the world has to offer.
An Interlude about the Interludes Have you ever noticed that the book of Revelation is filled with interruptions or breaks in the narrative flow? Why are there so many of these interruptions—we count ten of them—interrupting the flow of John’s story in chapters 6 and following? It’s like traveling on a road trip with someone who wants to stop at every fresh fruit stand along the way. If you open your Bible and scan the section headers in Revelation 6–16, you’ll likely notice the interludes and see them as interruptions. Does John think the seven churches need interruptions as he tells this story? Perhaps he has a reason. The story he tells is ghastly, with three times seven judgments on the world. Might John be concerned for his audience, hoping to keep them from succumbing to fear or depression? We believe this is exactly what is happening. Just as we get to the point where we want to put our hands over our eyes, John lifts us into the presence of God, a place of worship and revelation. These interruptions are called interludes and they perform one key function: they lift the listeners in the seven churches out of the horrors of the dragon and the wild things and Babylon into the heavenly throne room to experience God as the real story behind the story of everything.
Here is a list of all ten interludes: Interlude 1: Marking 144,000 (7:1–8) Interlude 2: Universal Acclamation by Witnesses (7:9–17) Interlude 3: Petitions of the Devout Ones (8:3–5) Interlude 4: Little Book Eaten (10:1–11) Interlude 5: Two Witnesses (11:1–14) Interlude 6: Woman and Dragon (12:1−17) Interlude 7: Dragon’s Two Wild Things (13:1−18) Interlude 8: Allegiant Ones (14:1–13) Interlude 9: Judgment Announced (14:14–19) Interlude 10: Conquerors (15:2–4)
What the Interludes Do – The interludes function as digressions in speech, departing from the sequence of the argument to call attention to something important. Revelation was written for oral performance (Rev 1:3), and the interludes capture the hearers’ attention with their unexpected shifts in focus. The interludes enhance the emotional appeal: while the visions awaken fear, the interludes offer hope for salvation, inviting confidence. The interludes create delay by disrupting the seemingly inexorable movement toward God’s judgment. The interludes create intensity. The interludes pull us from the disorientation that is intentionally created by the seals and trumpets. —Cited and adapted from Craig R. Koester, 356–57
Babylon runs along as if there is no Lamb, as if Rome’s current emperor is the world’s true king, and as if they have nothing to worry about. But in many of these interludes, the seven churches get sensory experiences of the realest of realities in the presence of God. A reality that someday will be New Jerusalem.
These glorious interludes mediate the victory of the Lamb for those who remain allegiant to him. Those living in Babylon need the interludes. This is the truth from behind the curtain, now pulled back for a brief moment of revived hope and encouragement. The interludes lift their listeners in the seven churches away from the horrors of the dragon, the wild things, and Babylon into the heavenly throne room where they can experience God as the real story behind what is happening:
If you haven’t noticed, John loves numbers. Many readers and interpreters of Revelation have noted that John never gives us a number that is free from symbolic value. Seven is the number of perfection, implying something done according to the divine design, the number of completion. Three implies the greatest or ultimate expression of something. So seven times three indicates triple perfection!
That word “immediately” can only mean immediately—that is, imminently. Attached to these verses are parables that tie these cosmic events to what sounds like the final events of all history (Matt 24:32–25:46). But what historic event are these scenes tied to? Jesus connects them directly to the destruction of Jerusalem in 66–73 AD. The words of Jesus are aimed at that event and then expressed in terms that characterize the end of history. That’s how apocalyptic language works.
The best explanation we have ever seen for how biblical prophecy works requires understanding two things: resistance and affirmation. What must be resisted is thinking that the prophets are announcing in precise detail what will happen in time and space in the immediate future. What must be affirmed is that rhetorically the prophets ramp up imminency to press upon their readers the urgency of responding to their message.
Was John wrong? Answering “yes” utterly fails to deal with apocalyptic and prophetic language. The next event is framed as the last event to motivate hearers to repent and follow the way of the Lamb. Prophet after prophet in the Old Testament did the very same thing, so John frames these judgments as something about to happen just over the horizon, and we are to receive them the same way—knowing that God’s time is God’s time, as Jesus taught his followers (Matt 24:36).
What is the point of this “bitter sweetness” that characterizes God’s judgment? These judgments do not simply elicit celebration, but instead they usher the listener into an embittered joy, a painful truth that the world must experience for it to be redeemed. These judgments are a necessary but bitter reality. They are a bitter sweetness.
These scenes are not the stuff of world wars or nuclear holocausts. They are images of God’s justice being established by erasing the evils of injustice.
All of this to say: we are to see these—yes, triply—complete judgments as the deepest desire of the oppressed for justice. The specific judgments in the seals, trumpets, and shallow bowls are common tropes recognizable by those who have studied the Old Testament.
The oppressed want to hear from God, and they want to experience his justice. They want to see judgment on evil, they want oppression to end, and they want injustices to be undone. They want to hear that their oppressors are scheduled for a date with the divine. They want to know that racism will end in equality, that starvation will end in a banquet, that exclusion from the city will end in open gates for all. The oppressed have felt the piercingly violent eyes of Babylon upon them and have stared into the face of the dragon in the wild things. They know evil when they see it, and they long for the light found in the Lamb’s eyes.
All these and others remind the oppressed people of God that it may not look good today, but tomorrow brings new Jerusalem.
Behind all these judgments is an acknowledgment of God’s superintendence and orchestration. The book of Revelation exhales the air of God’s judgment in hot gusts—and we must not diminish divine involvement. A mistake is sometimes made by those who press these judgments into literal earthly realities in which God supposedly makes havoc of his own creation. Rather, these are all—each and in totality—graphic images of judgment on the dragon, the wild things, and Babylon. These judgments have a clear purpose as well: the elimination of evil in the world so the people of God can dwell in peace in the new Jerusalem. They spring from John’s vision, which he connects to the plagues and the prophets, and they stir the imagination of the oppressed in their hope for justice and of the sinful as a warning that God will eventually pay back all injustice.
Morally, the core issue is justice, and God is the One and Only who always does what is right. We are to see the three times seven judgments as an indication that God is making the world right by eliminating the arrogant, anti-God, exploitative, dominating ways of Babylon. Nothing thrills the heart of the oppressed and unjust sufferers more than hearing that God will make everything right—that he will bring justice. To put it practically, this means: • Racism condemned and made right is justice. • Economic exploitation made right is justice. • Trafficking bodies of humans made right is justice.
No, God makes things right because injustices are horribly wrong. The three times seven judgments are not lurid chronological timelines of revenge, but are three separable, but at times overlapping depictions, of God establishing justice so that the evils of Babylon disappear and the goodness of new Jerusalem becomes a reality.
A Prophet Spinning Plates – When an Old Testament prophet’s prophecy comes to pass and is fulfilled—though not in every single detail—some are tempted to characterize such prophecies as partially fulfilled. A “fuller” fulfillment is expected. For such readers, Revelation is the depiction of that final fulfilment, completing the missing aspects of many lingering, incomplete Old Testament prophecies. This, too, is a mistake. Here’s why: the seeds of John’s visions were planted in Israel’s past but only bloom with the arrival of the Lamb. Put differently, our wonderful writer’s imagination grows out of his memory. His book is not a prediction-fulfillment scheme based in Isaiah or Ezekiel or Daniel. Rather, John uses the images of these prophets to interpret the present and anticipate the future.
How Prophets Prophesied – Many people today are taught to read the Old Testament prophets as predictors and the New Testament authors as fulfillers of those predictions. But it’s not that simple. Careful reading of Scripture teaches us that it takes time to read the Bible in its historical context.
For example, Jesus connected his prophecy of Jerusalem’s destruction, which occurred in the war with Rome in 66–73 AD, with the prophet Daniel (Mark 13:14). Peter saw Pentecost in the language of Joel (Acts 2:14–21). When prophets spoke like this, they said something old and new at the same time.
How John Prophesied John was soaked in the language of prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel and Daniel, and at times there is a prophecy-fulfillment scheme at work. But most of the time John’s scheme is not prophecy-fulfillment. Instead, it is perhaps better described as re-actualization.
Again, these are not identical, but they are close enough to make us wonder if John spent time pondering Isaiah 27:1. (Answer: Yes, he did.) We are not to think that John created what he says about the wild things or serpent or the sword solely from this text, but rather that this text informed John as he described the visions that he saw.
One could say John is recording the fulfillment of Jesus’s own words, and that would be partially right, but we should also note that Jesus’s own words echo the prophets before him. John is echoing echoes!
Different contexts, but similar ideas. These cosmic disturbances are apocalyptic language for divine judgment against political powers. John’s uses of these texts are not “fulfillments” but the re-actualizing of former prophecies.
This is neither accidental, nor is it prophecy being fulfilled. John captures his sensory experiences in the language he knew best: the plagues of Egypt.
In Summary – To sum up the previous chapters, we can say that the three times seven judgments are bittersweet scrolls for John to digest, and they are the answer to the prayers of the suffering, oppressed people of Jesus. The judgments map onto one another but also accumulate and intensify toward the final erasure of evil in the defeat of the dragon, the wild things, and Babylon. The judgments make things right for the people of new Jerusalem.
Divine Judgments or Disciplines? We believe more careful, nuanced thinking is needed to ascertain what is happening with the divine three times seven judgments in Revelation. These “judgments,” are perhaps better described as divine disciplines which establish justice, not vindictive judgments of retribution. The difference matters. These acts of God on the stage of history are not retributions or the venting of a divine spleen. They are acts of God with the purpose of transforming people.
But here are three examples (italics added) of the refrain we are referring to: And they sang a new song, saying: “You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.” (Rev 5:9) After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. (Rev 7:9) Then I saw another angel flying in midair, and he had the eternal gospel to proclaim to those who live on the earth—to every nation, tribe, language and people. (Rev 14:6) Can you hear the refrain? Here, John speaks of tribes and nations and peoples and languages. There is no more all-encompassing expression like this found in the entire Bible. At the time John is writing the Apocalypse, the church can only be found as small pockets of Jesus followers scattered throughout the Roman empire. And we’d emphasize small pockets. It exists as house churches.
The prophets frequently expressed the end time as the return of the scattered northern tribes of Israel and their joining with Judah. For instance, the famous vision of the dry bones rattling and coming back to life in Ezekiel 37:20–28 was a prediction of that rejoining.
It is a biblical blunder to reduce the great tribulation to a future period when God is doing nothing but pouring out wrath for the purpose of retribution. Instead, we should read the so-called great tribulation as a time of the greatest evangelistic impact in history, a reaching-out that occurs in the midst of clashing empires. Babylon’s persecutions are met by faithful witnesses and martyrdoms, and the flying angel of 14:6 that we just read about is a summons to the entire globe to “fear God and give him glory” (14:7). Even those committed to the dragon and the wild things convert!
They reactualize the song of Moses toward the victorious Lamb with these final words: “All nations will come and worship before you, for your righteous acts have been revealed” (15:4). Again, we see conversion occurring in the midst of the divine disciplines. For this reason, it is unwise to reduce the seals, trumpets, and bowls to the word “judgments”; rather, these are divine disciplines. There is an intent for them that goes beyond vindication and punishment. God uses these three times seven disciplines to warn followers of the dragon about God’s coming judgment while also calling them to surrender themselves to the Lamb.
Putting this all together can feel a bit complicated, but here is our best attempt: John has re-actualized the song of Moses and turned it on its head. The expert on this interpretation, Richard Bauckham, has observed, “The effect [of John’s version of the song of Moses] is to shift the emphasis . . . from an event by which God delivers his people by judging their enemies to an event which brings the nations to acknowledge the true God.” The martyrs who sing the new ode of Moses sing a song not of their own liberation from Egypt or their own salvation but of the impact of their witness on the world around them. Their witness led a mass of people to praise the God on the throne and his Lamb. John’s ode is like Moses’s ode, but it’s also altogether new at the same time.
John’s core chapters (6–19) tell us, and this concludes our observations, that the three times seven judgments are disciplines designed by God to woo people from the way of the Dragon to the way of the Lamb.
Not All Repent – We have saved two explicit texts for last. There are two tragic texts, and we show our emphasis in italics: The rest of mankind who were not killed by these plagues still did not repent of the work of their hands; they did not stop worshiping demons, and idols of gold, silver, bronze, stone and wood—idols that cannot see or hear or walk. Nor did they repent of their murders, their magic arts, their sexual immorality or their thefts. (9:20–21) The fourth angel poured out his bowl on the sun, and the sun was allowed to scorch people with fire. They were seared by the intense heat, and they cursed the name of God, who had control over these plagues, but they refused to repent and glorify him. The fifth angel poured out his bowl on the throne of the beast, and its kingdom was plunged into darkness. People gnawed their tongues in agony and cursed the God of heaven because of their pains and their sores, but they refused to repent of what they had done. (16:8–11) If some convert to the Lamb through the divine disciplines, others are hardened and turn more vitriolic in their rejection of God. The term that stands out to us here, which we have emphasized in bold italics, is “repent.” The whole world is called to repent.
The divine intent of the disciplines is to clear out the rubble, the evil manifestations of the dragon and its wild things in the corrupted city of Babylon. Only then can new Jerusalem arrive without the fear of violence and the corruption of the dragon.
The revelations of negative consequences combine with a threat of judgment and provide an opportunity to repent—which means there is discipline in the divine act of judgment. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lamp-stand from its place. (2:5) Repent therefore! Otherwise, I will soon come to you and will fight against them with the sword of my mouth. (2:16) But if you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what time I will come to you. (3:3) I am coming soon. Hold on to what you have, so that no one will take your crown. (3:11) These statements are warrants for repentance and transformation, not simply warnings of inevitable judgment.
Rider on the White Horse – We begin with a new version of what appears to be the second coming of Christ, pictured for us in the image of a Rider on the white horse, whose name is “Faithful and True” and the “Word of God” (Logos of God). Anyone can figure this one out: it’s Jesus!
The Last Judgment – Following the celebration over the fall of Babylon and the white horse Rider, Revelation gives us one last judgment. John splits this last judgment into four scenes, one in Revelation 20:1–3 (locking up Satan), followed by 20:4–6 (the millennium), then 20:7–10 (judging Satan), and finally 20:11–15 (the “great white throne” judgment). Again, there is Old Testament imagery behind these judgment scenes.
The “Millennium” From his Daniel-inspired sketch of judgment, John moves into another image, what today is often called the “millennium” (20:4–6). At the outset we’d like to note that almost everything said today about the millennium by those speculating about the future does not come from this text. Yet it is the one and only passage about a millennium in the whole Bible. Many simply fill in the blanks of Revelation 20:4–6 with visions of grandeur and peace and justice from passages found in the Old Testament prophets. What’s even more irritating is that what is actually said about the millennium in this one-and-only text is almost entirely ignored! One more time it bears repeating, beware the speculators!
John turns that defeat in Daniel into the binding of Satan and the “millennium” vision of Revelation 20.
What is the victory? A resurrection. For whom? Only for the witnesses to the Lamb who did not love their lives more than death, the martyrs. They come to life to rule with Jesus for one thousand years (another perfect number, this one suggesting immensity and long duration; see appendix 9, “The Millennium”).
Because the millennium is only for martyrs, one must wonder if there can actually be a time in history when martyrs rule with Christ, judging the world and becoming its priests. (We think this very unlikely.) Instead, it is better to read the millennium as simply a numerical symbol of victory and rule for those who have suffered under the rule of the dragon.
Richard Bauckham, a major advocate of this approach, concludes: “The theological point of the millennium is solely to demonstrate the triumph of the martyrs.” And consider: nothing was more encouraging for the seven churches than to hear that their own martyrs would be vindicated. Bauckham also wonders how such an event could occur in real history. John, he says, “no doubt expected there to be judgments, but his descriptions of them are imaginative schemes designed to depict the meaning of the judgments.”
How are we to read this? Again, the same rules of reading apply. This is a picture of the elimination of evil and evil forces so the new Jerusalemites can dwell in peace.
Are You Premill, Amill, or Postmill? – We are frequently asked what our “view” of Revelation is, and the question is often framed in terms of the millennium: Are you premillennial, or amillennial, or postmillennial? We answer back: Why is the so-called (literal, physical) millennium the interpretive framework for reading the book of Revelation? The millennium, regardless of your view, is a sideshow in this book (at best). Three verses are the grand sum of verses about the millennium in Revelation. The question itself builds on a premillennialist foundation. Assuming there is one, this group charges that the most common view of church history, amillennialism, denies the millennium (that’s what the a in amillennialism means). Another quite popular view in the history of the church is that Christ will return after the millennium (a postmillennial return). But to call one view amillennial is inaccurate, for the amillennialist believes in a millennium, just not a literal one, affirming that it refers instead to the church age. You could call amillennialists symbolic millennialists while the premillennialists are literal, physical millennialists. Postmillennialists tend to be literal too. The bigger issue is that Revelation should never be read through the framework of the millennium. Doing so is a colossal example of missing the whole point of the book. A better question is, “Ignoring the millennium entirely, what is your view of the book of Revelation?” Our answer: It is an apocalyptic-prophetic book revealing the evils of the empire and summoning readers to a discerning, dissident discipleship as we live into the new Jerusalem.
Which leads us to ask: Is “death” a person? Is “Hades” a god? What is actually being tossed here? A big furnace? A colossal casket? Again, these are all images of the dragon’s aim in its work: to kill and destroy. If the dragon and its minions are put away in the fiery lake, then death and Hades—the gods of the dead—can be tossed into the lake of final destruction as well. The fiery lake is the place where all evil—the dragon, the wild things, the false prophet, and their armies—is eradicated.
This is John’s finest hour. The day for which he longed. This is the day on which evil will be eliminated from God’s creation so the people of God can live in safety and peace and justice and so they can forever bask in the light of the Lamb. And his point is that these two belong together: eliminating evil and establishing justice. Nothing would be more chest-swelling to the seven churches than to know that someday the Lamb would rule, someday they would be safe to worship God, and someday the evils of Babylon would be erased into a long-forgotten history.
1. New Creation – At a macro-level, the book of Revelation is one more expression of the New Testament confidence that the kingdom has been inaugurated in Jesus but awaits consummation. George Ladd often says the kingdom is “present without consummation.” John’s new Jerusalem is that consummation.
A good reading of Revelation recognizes that the transition from the defeat of Babylon and the erasure of evil to the new heaven and the new earth with the glorious new Jerusalem is new creation itself.
In one sentence, we can define new Jerusalem as God present among God’s people in God’s place.
2. Theocracy – In comparison with Greek and Roman conceptions, Jewish sensibilities about an ideal state, about government, and about politics were very different. Jewish visions didn’t embrace a monarchy, an aristocracy, or a democracy. They believed in a theocracy, the rule of God.
The ideal for the Jew contradicted the ideals of Greeks and Romans: a theocracy governed in a temple by a law from God and mediated by priests. This system can be called a theocracy or might be better described as a hierocracy (rule by priests).
3. Ideal Temple – There are several points in the Old Testament where we find evidence of hope for an ideal temple in an ideal Jerusalem.
The most noteworthy description of the ideal temple is found in the prophet Ezekiel. He singularly prophesied the end of exile and a return to the land, where there would be an ideal temple in a massive (and ideal) Jerusalem of some fifty square miles.
Ezekiel does not see a rebuilt Jerusalem or a rebuilt temple; he sees a brand new temple where, as God tells him, “I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people” (37:26–27).
This Qumran scroll anticipates a rebuilt Jerusalem and reworks the temple of Ezekiel, who himself had reworked Isaiah!
There is not a shred of evidence in the only passage about the millennium that there will be a temple rebuilt in Jerusalem (Rev 20:1–6).
4. No-Temple Temple – Rome was a forum. Jerusalem was a temple. John wipes both of these significant cities off the stage of history and ushers in the most radical part of his vision of the new Jerusalem. Here, he is clearly interacting with Ezekiel, in effect saying, “Anything you can do I can do better!”
Jerusalem was a temple city, and Jerusalem without its temple is just not Jerusalem. But the new Jerusalem has no temple—and yet it does. God and the Lamb are the temple! This is an escalation where Jerusalem becomes something new—Jerusalem times Jerusalem. A world without a sun and moon is not our world. But the new Jerusalem needs no sun or moon because God and the Lamb are its lights.
Theocracy, ideal temple, and a no-temple kind of temple—all key concepts John is presenting to the churches.
We would also add a brief comment to anticipate what comes later in the book: every time we experience the presence of God in Christ through the Spirit, we glimpse the new Jerusalem. Every time. Babylon is now and temporary; new Jerusalem is now and eternal. The seven churches at the table, the seven churches singing their redemption songs, the daily communion of the saints, and their ongoing allegiance with one another to the Lamb are all experiences of the new Jerusalem in the here and now.
5. Replacing Rome – Step back and look at what John tells us at the end of the book. Babylon, aka Rome, falls in defeat, and Jerusalem, aka new Jerusalem, replaces Rome as the world’s great power.
In summary, we have five cornerstones: new creation, theocracy, a new temple, a no-temple temple, and a city that puts Babylon into the rearview mirror. John’s vision is a promise that stimulates faith and courage, shaping the message he wants to communicate to the seven churches. New Jerusalem is the promise given to the faithful in the seven churches.
New Jerusalem as Promise for Victors Many readers of Revelation miss the connections between the messages to the seven churches and the new Jerusalem, a forgivable error since they are separated by eighteen chapters! Still, it is important that we connect the seven churches and the new Jerusalem by demonstrating that the new Jerusalem is the promise given to the victors—it is the final erasure of evil and the establishment of God’s ideal city. This chapter seeks to uncover the connection between the seven churches and the new Jerusalem, setting up the next section of this book, which looks at how to live faithfully as followers of the Lamb.
A fitting summary of all these promises, as diverse and varied as they are, is Revelation 21:7: “Those who are victorious will inherit all this [= 21:1–4], and I will be their God and they will be my children.” In other words, those who conquer in the conquest of the Lamb will get it all! To summarize we can say the conquerors in Christ will inherit (1) intimate, eternal presence with God and Jesus and (2) the new Jerusalem, a flourishing, growing, and vibrant city that embodies the ever-increasing fullness of God’s design for all creation.
In One Word: Blessed Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near. (1:3) Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.” (14:13) Look, I come like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake and remains clothed, so as not to go naked and be shamefully exposed. (16:15) Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.” (19:9) Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years. (20:6) Look, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy written in this scroll. (22:7) Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. (22:14)
So, Who Are the Victors? – Life in Babylon for followers of the Lamb plays out in a battle zone between the dragon and the Lamb. The dragon will experience a few conquests, but measured against the Lamb’s victories the dragon’s are temporary and minor. God wins. The Lamb wins. The way of the Lamb wins. And those who walk in the way of the Lamb will also win, and this means they will enter the new Jerusalem. If you follow not the so-called arc of history but the arc of eschatology, you will discover new Jerusalem there at the end, an ideal city designed for the victorious followers of the Lamb.
As Thomas B. Slater demonstrates, the very word John uses—“conquer”—has been transformed from being the victor of a bloody battle to being victorious as a faithful witness to the way of the Lamb, even if that means losing.
The Victors’ “War Weapon” – This kind of resistant, dissident allegiant witness to the Lamb explains how the believers conquer and win. We italicize the critical words for you to take note of them: “They triumphed [or, conquered] over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their [witness]; they did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death” (12:11). These believers do not conquer with the war weapons of Babylon, matching them or overmatching them with superior weapons of war. They do not, like the Romans who had no conscience, conquer with brutality and domination and violence and bloodshed and death. They conquer the dragon because they stand up, speak up, and speak out about the Lamb who is Lord of lords.
We have come full circle, back to where we began: the way of the Lamb is a form of resistance to the way of Babylon. Those committed to the Lord of lords do not wage war as the Romans do. They do not conquer as the Romans do. And they do not worship as the Romans do. They worship the One on the throne and the Lamb, and anyone worshiping God and the Lamb is being transformed into an agent of the Lamb’s peace and justice, which is the way of life in new Jerusalem.
Babylon in the Seven Churches – Christopher Rowland, who has plumbed apocalyptic literature as well as anyone in the modern era, counters much of the common interpretation of Revelation when he says, “We should not ask of apocalypses, what do they mean? Rather, we should ask, how do the images and designs work? How do they affect us and change our lives?” One of the recurring themes of this book has been our desire to address that question: How does Revelation change our lives? This is especially true for those who use Revelation to make predictions and encourage speculations.
Reading Revelation means knowing for whom it was written. We answer that by saying it was written for dissidents. We must also understand how it can best impact and transform us. As we have seen, it is through our imagination. And we must also recognize the book’s characters, beginning with Babylon, and its overarching story from creation and covenant to Christ and the church in Babylon and finally to new Jerusalem. The book of Revelation is written to shape a church surrounded by the swamping and creeping ways of Babylon.
So how does one live in Babylon? First, the dissident disciples of the seven churches had to learn to see how Babylon was impacting and influencing them. Like a fish in water, the way of Babylon is nearly invisible for the one swimming in it.
This entire book—don’t forget this please—is for each of those seven churches. Every vision, every interlude, every song is for each of them.
Their sins are rooted in a struggle to walk in the way of the Lamb because Babylon was penetrating the churches and they were no longer focused on the face of the Lamb. What were some of the signs of Babylon in the church? 1. Their love had become disordered (2:4). 2. Their teachings were distorted (2:14–15, 20–23). 3. Their worship was corrupted (2:14–15, 20–23). 4. Their behaviors grew inconsistent with the way of the Lamb (3:1–2, 15–18).
Disordered Love – The Colossus Christ looks upon the church at Ephesus, one of five greatest cities of the world at that time, and states forthrightly what he sees:
Whatever the case, their rugged, affective commitments to God and to one another have disappeared. Saying they “lost it” or it “disappeared” isn’t strong enough to capture what Jesus says to the Ephesians: “You have forsaken the love you had at first.” The word John uses is aphiēmi, and it means to “release.” This same word is behind the word “forgive” and refers to our sins being released from us. The Ephesians have released their love. It didn’t escape; they released it.
Distorted Teachings – From the very beginning of the church, there were problems with corrupt teachers.
The teachings of Balaam and Jezebel appear to be worship (whole body, whole life) of false gods.
The teachings of the Nicolaitans is even trickier because this could be a play on words: Nikao means victory or conquering, and laitans means people. Is this someone who had some secret solution for the people to find victory, or is this a specific teacher, a man named Nicolaus, who had a following?
But not so for John. Worshiping at a shrine for him embodied surrender to the way of the dragon.
Corrupted Worship – It must be said yet again: worship is more than praise choruses, though songs of praise are certainly one element of worship. Worship describes a whole life lived in devotion to the God on the throne and the Lamb who stands in the middle of that throne. If worship is one’s whole life devoted to God, then any dimension of life surrendered to anything else corrupts worship.
Either our devotion is to God or it is to the ungods, and if to the latter, then it is corrupted worship.
David Brooks, commenting on the workplace, once said, “Never underestimate the power of the environment you work in to gradually transform who you are. When you choose to work at a certain company, you are turning yourself into the sort of person who works in that company.”
But before too long they really did belong in Babylon because Babylon had formed them into good Romans.
All of this leads us to one central question for our own lives today: How much of our faith is tied to our own nation and its power? Forms of Christian nationalism have been infecting the church since the fourth century. It has long been a matter of Rome plus the church, a church ruled by the state, by the nation, or by the military. In such an idolatrous mixture, the symbols of empire morph into symbols of nationalism and religion, and religious nationalism wants to incorporate Christ into its powers. Idolatries will use religion to sanction the nation. So how present or prominent is your nation’s flag in your church? Those who have been discipled in the way of the Lamb discern the symbols of nationalism and resist them as dissidents.
Inconsistent Behaviors – Babylon and new Jerusalem have two different moralities.
John’s world, for rhetorical purposes, is either-or: either you follow Jesus or you follow the dragon. John knew that discernment was required in particular cases, but he hasn’t time for nuance. His absence of nuance derives from his purpose: to challenge indecisive Christians to full devotion. His language is reminiscent of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s either-or language in his book Discipleship: “Cheap grace is preaching forgiveness without repentance; it is baptism without the discipline of community; it is the Lord’s Supper without confession of sin; it is absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without the living, incarnate Jesus Christ.”
Jesus uses several metaphors in his white-hot words to Laodicea as he speaks of their inconsistency, duplicity, and hypocrisy. We should also notice that Jesus’s most piercing words were aimed at frauds (Matt 6:1–18; 23:1–39).
Laodicean water becomes a metaphor for their works: neither healing nor refreshing. Jesus will “spit them out” or “vomit them out.” These are words of judgment, and they reveal that Babylon is seducing the Laodiceans into lives of cheap grace.
Here we have two mistakes in one: we need to bring Babylon back into the picture and recognize that the problems in the seven churches were, at the root, compromises with Babylon.
Disorder, Distortion, Corruption, and Inconsistency Become Destructive – Babylon is creeping into the seven churches because . . . Babylon gonna Babylon. Always. And Babylon always has one goal: domination. And always at the expense of faithfulness. It took three centuries for Babylon—the way of Rome—to take over the church, and in some important ways it destroyed the church.
Constantine unquestionably operated at times with a charitable tolerance, but the dirty deed had been done: the state became the power of the church. States do what states do, and they do this through war and violence. An expert on Roman history, Ramsay Macmullen, states it this way, “The empire had never had on the throne a man given to such bloodthirsty violence as Constantine.” Though he was a supposedly Christian emperor, he was known for violence and was a man with a sword in his fist, not the word of God. But Constantine only began the turn to Christendom. It was not until Theodosius I, emperor from 379 to 395 AD, that the full integration of church and state into Christendom occurs. This is perpetuated and passed on as tradition for centuries.
Christendom was the most tragic mistake in the history of the church.
And here is the tragedy of tragedies: the cross became the symbol for his military might, his palace, and his churches. Constantine became “their redeemer, saviour and benefactor” (1.39) even though in truth he was a brutal warmongering emperor whose goal was dominance and whose method was power through intimidation and violence. This is not to say his Christian profession was entirely fraudulent. Nor are we saying that he never acted with benevolence and tolerance. We do not deny that he built some wonderful churches (like Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre). And we’re not saying he was not a Christian or that he only “converted” for political advantage. What is clear, however, is that the man with a cross for a banner was a bloodthirsty man who defaced the way of the Lamb as he ruled in the way of the dragon. Violence, empire, and power would forever mark the churches that bound themselves to the state.
Worshiping in Babylon – How does one live in a world that is anti-God, devoted to opulence, consistently opposed to the way of the Lamb, full of itself and intent on being impressive, protected with the might of its militarism, aiming to become the international power, living on the precipice of constant internal betrayals, driven by economic exploitation of anyone and everyone, structured into a mysterious hierarchical system of power and honor, and at the bottom of it all is driven by arrogance and ambition? How is one to live “in” Babylon and not be “of” Babylon when boxed in by Babylon?
But John offers a way for followers of the Lamb to live in Babylon, and it begins with worship.
John wrote up the entire Apocalypse for those seven churches. This means the book of Revelation is not a timeless vision using the seven churches as a mask for some future world but is instead a timely revelation about Jesus for those churches (and for churches of all times).
Worship – Before we explain how worship is at the heart of Christian living in Babylon, we call your attention to a growing (and healthy) trend among evangelical thinkers, namely, the importance of habits in the formation of character. The proper name for this trend is “virtue ethics,” and the theory is that if we practice the right habits—like worship—they will form us into the right persons, and right persons will do the right things in the context of the right story.
The major habit of the book of Revelation is worship. One of the most interesting writers about Revelation in the last fifty years is Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, and we believe she asks the right question for understanding this book: “What does a reading of Revelation do to someone who submits to its world of vision?” We can now ask this even more narrowly: What does it do to the person who turns constantly to God in worship? And the short answer is that worship changes us—worship as a whole body, whole voice, whole mind, and whole life lived in gratitude to God for redemption and a whole life surrendered to the way of the Lamb.
Spirituals, Not Hymns – Yes, the book of Revelation contains visions that can make us cringe. Interrupting those visions, however, are songs that have themselves generated thousands of additional songs sung by over a billion Christians.
There are nine songs in the book of Revelation (4:8–11; 5:8–14; 7:9–12; 11:15–18; 12:10–12; 15:3–4; 16:5–7; 19:1–4 and 19:5–8; cited at appendix 11, “The Songs of Revelation”). They are often called “hymns,” but we join others who think that term is not entirely accurate. Why? Because hymns are the music we sing in a life of comfort.
Actions in the Nine Spirituals of Revelation – Worship is not passive; it is active, coming into expression. Worship is not sitting quietly with a Mona Lisa smile. Worship is act, and there are various acts of worship that are described in the nine spirituals of Revelation. There are several terms used, so we want to list them with corresponding verses for those who want to look them up in context: 1. Saying: 4:8, 10 2. Singing: 5:9; 15:3 3. Ode: 5:9; 14:3; 15:3 4. Crying out: 7:10 5. Uttering “Oy!” or “Woe!”: 12:12 6. Splendoring the name of God: 15:4; 19:7 7. Shouting “Hallelujah!”: 19:1, 3, 4, 6 8. Rejoicing exuberantly: 19:7
Here is yet another list, this one of various embodied actions found in the worship scenes of Revelation. 1. Bowing down: 4:10; 5:8; 7:11; 11:16; 19:4 2. Tossing their crowns to God: 4:10 3. Encircling the throne of God: 5:11; 7:11 4. Standing: 7:9, 11; 15:2 5. Holding date palm branches: 7:9 6. Using instruments to make music: 5:8; 15:2 7. Uttering “Amen!”: 5:14; 7:12
Here are three implications from studying this list: the worship of Revelation (1) is rooted in redemption over and over (5:9, 12; 7:10), (2) worship comes to expression in verbal praise and thanksgiving, and (3) worship leads to a life of allegiance in the way of the Lamb.
Reducing worship to Sunday at 11 a.m. violates the heart of worship. Worship is Sunday through Saturday, 24-7.
Worshiping this God inevitably leads to resisting Babylon’s gods and converts the people of the Lamb into dissidents in the world. Those who worship the Lamb do not worship the emperor and his gods.
Words turned into music, combined with other voices, combined with instruments, turn words into an aesthetic, emotional experience that lifts the spirits of the believers from their mundane reality into this wonderfully sensory alternative world called God’s throne room. In singing, the believer transcends her reality and enters a new reality—God’s reality, the kingdom of God, the new Jerusalem. Singing these spirituals is an act of resistance, dissidence, and what some call “foot-dragging” and obstructing.
Worship as Witness – When your faith’s motto is that the dragon’s kingdom is destined to become the Messiah’s kingdom, when you know that Jesus and not the emperor is the Lord of lords, and when you know the story of everything that leads you to worship the God on the throne and the Lamb in the center of that throne, you are summoned to walk in the way of the Lamb.
Which leads us back to the question driving John. How does one live in a world that is anti-God, devoted to opulence, consistently opposed to the way of the Lamb, full of itself and intent on being impressive, protected with the might of its militarism, aiming to become the international power, living on the precipice of constant internal betrayals, driven by economic exploitation of anyone and everyone, structured into a mysterious hierarchical system of power and honor, and driven by arrogant ambition? His answer is worship, yes. But what kind of worship? John points us to a life of embodied worship, a worship of both words and works.
Worship as a Witness of Works – Along with “worship,” another word pulls the Christian life in Babylon together: “witness.”
To live in Babylon as a Lamb-follower challenges Babylon’s dragon and the dragon’s efforts to hook and drag Lamb-followers into the realm of the dead. The response to the way of the dragon is to worship God and the Lamb and to live faithfully as allegiant witnesses to the way of the Lamb.
Worship as the Words of One’s Witness – Let’s think more about this term “witness,” which in Greek is martus, from which we get our English word “martyr.” Some interpreters today mistakenly think this term and the verb like it (martureō) can be reduced to the witness of one’s life. But this turns the meaning of the word upside down! “Witness” describes a person speaking up or out about one’s experience. At times it refers to the language of a court witness, but more fundamentally it is about what one says about what one believes or has experienced.
A witness verbally affirms the lordship of the Lamb in public, walks daily in the way of the Lamb, and faces suffering for resisting the way of Babylon. A full witness to the Lamb is one of both words and works, and often involves suffering.
Being a witness has two sides: it is public affirmation in word and life of the lordship of Jesus, and it is public resistance in word and life to the way of the dragon embodied in Babylon.
It required a daily, ongoing, fluctuating capacity to discern the presence of the dragon. Followers of the Lamb were regularly called on to express their allegiance.
Allegiance flows directly from worship and is attached to our witness. We witness to Jesus as Lord in the daily routines of life as well as the tests and trials of life.
The Aim of All Worship: Christoformity – How shall we sum up the major themes of the Christian life as we find them in Revelation? Walking in the way of the Lamb means worshiping God on the throne and the Lamb in the center of that throne.
Three times in Revelation Jesus is called allegiant, and twice this is connected to witness. Jesus is the Allegiant One and Jesus is the Witness. For the Christians of western Asia Minor to be allegiant witnesses it meant participating in who Jesus is and entering into the work he has given us in extending the gospel. It is to be Christ’s presence in Babylon. Especially today. In the USA.
Four Marks of Babylon – Today The ways of reading Revelation that spend time speculating about the questions When will all this happen? and Who is the antichrist? fail the church in discipleship. Instead of a discipleship that teaches us to discern Babylon among us and shows us how to live in Babylon as dissidents instead of conformists, these speculative questions teach Christians how to wait for the escape from Babylon. They encourage questions like Will I be left behind or raptured? and Am I “in” or “out”? or Am I saved or not? By making future-focused judgments central to reading Revelation and treating Babylon as a world-class city of the future or giving the USA and Israel a central role in the divine plan, this speculative method teaches adherents to trust in the wrong things—especially the false safety of the all-powerful American military.
If we want to live out the message of Revelation today, we need to develop eyes that discern Babylon’s power, violence, and injustice in our midst today. We must recognize the Babylon all around us.
Arrogance – The heart of Babylon will always be arrogant self-sufficiency that has no need for God, no care for the people of God, and no commitment to the ways of God. The haunting words of Babylon, perhaps only muttered in the privacy of one’s mind and heart, are “There is none besides me” (from Isa 47:8). John’s Babylon says, “I will never mourn” (Rev 18:7). This gives us insight into how Babylon thinks: it thinks of itself, for itself, about itself, and everything revolves around itself. This is an empire called “narcissism.” It thinks of itself in comparative terms and is always on the hunt for potential competitors. It either draws others into its circle and under its power, or it works to silence, exploit, and kill all rivals. Opposition prompts rage. Discerning eyes detect Babylon by its arrogance.
We can confidently say that American arrogance comes not from new Jerusalem, but from Babylon, and any claim that we’re on the road to new Jerusalem while living like Babylon unmasks our hypocrisy.
So, what are the marks of national arrogance that Revelation teaches dissident disciples to discern? First, there is a sense of grandiosity, thinking you live in the world’s greatest nation. Second, there is competition with other nations in a vain quest to dominate. Third, there is the exercise of power by cutting off relationships with other nations who desire their own autonomy and sovereignty. What America wants for itself, in other words, is too often not what it wants for other nations, a denial of the principle of the Golden Rule. Fourth, there is an irredeemable inability to empathize, sympathize, and show compassion for “less fortunate” nations. And finally, there is rage and retaliation when criticized.
Economic Exploitation – Arrogant Babylon also economically exploits others for its own prosperity. Money and status are power and the love language of Babylon, what we might call a “meritocracy.” In America’s meritocracy, the wealthy are considered wealthy by virtue of their work ethic while those in poverty are poor because of their lack of a work ethic. The “virtuous wealthy” look down on the “unvirtuous poor.” The wealthy lack gratitude for their achievements and grow proud and arrogant, while the poor are shamed as “deplorables” and resent the “elites.” Money means power, status, and virtue in the Babylons of this world.
In rejecting Calvinism’s determinism, the capitalists built a system on the following three ideas: (1) self-interested freedom, (2) a self-interested freedom that was to be disciplined or constrained by competition in the markets, and (3) a belief that self-interest and competition would lead to the common good with economic benefits for the most. But what is driven by self-interest and competition and then measured by the economy is not a Christian system of economics. A Christian version of common-good competition requires a people of character. That is, the citizens need to be just and generous, and they need to aim for an equitable society. Capitalism alone has no character.
But the free market does not produce disciples on the way to the new Jerusalem. It produces Babylon.
Babylon has made its home in the American economy. The church can lead the way out of this by forming a culture of economic justice for the common good.
Militarism – Nothing is more overtly akin to Babylon than an addiction to militarism.
This is a sign of Babylon. The dragon loves war because wars produce death.
We had the hubris to remind the world of “our” victory in World War II. Peace through strength intimidates others with power and evokes the myths of Babylon’s ungods. It is reminiscent of Rome of the first century, and if you doubt this, read Julius Caesar’s The Gallic War or Josephus’s The Jewish War.
The way of the Lamb is the way of peace, through peacemaking and reconciliation. It means dropping the sword and beating that sword into a garden tool. Blessed are the peacemakers, Jesus said, and he meant it.
Christian “realists” counter the biblical vision of peace by claiming that if we really live that way we will lose and emphasize that each country has a responsibility to defend itself. They argue that in a sinful fallen world, a military is both a necessity and a last resort. Their contention is that the way of the Lamb is for another world, not the real world in which we live. In this world militarism will always be needed.
Oppression – John writes from Patmos because he spoke up and spoke out. He was a witness. And Babylon still oppresses today. Take China. Reports are that there are around a million Muslims in prison. In North Korea, a country that tolerates less freedom than any nation in the world, some 70 thousand Christians are in prison. Six million Jews were exterminated under Hitler. Looking even further back, medieval Europe was Catholic and intolerant of reformers.
Intolerance draws battle lines for Babylon. And even though American freedom combines that freedom with tolerance for others, Babylon responds with various forms of intolerance and oppression: silencing, obstructing, boundary marking, exploiting, manipulating, harming, causing suffering, persecuting, killing, and narrating an ungod story of everything.
In a bold move by an even bolder writer, Isabel Wilkerson proposed that the fundamental term we use in the USA should not be “racism” but “caste.” America’s treatment of non-white persons is nothing less, she contends, than a race-based system that has now become a caste system.
Isabel Wilkerson’s Eight Pillars of the Caste System in America 1. Caste expresses God’s will and the laws of nature. 2. Caste is inherited from birth. 3. Caste is controlled by restricting marriage to one’s caste. 4. Caste guards the pure caste from the polluted castes. 5. Caste creates a hierarchy of occupations with lowest castes at the bottom. 6. Caste intentionally dehumanizes and stigmatizes. 7. Caste is enforced by terror and controlled by cruelty. 8. Caste segregates superior persons from inferior persons. Isabel Wilkerson, Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents (New York: Random House, 2020), 97–164.
The Apocalypse teaches us that the dragon loves racism because it brings death, the wild things enforce racism because it coerces into conformity, and Babylon embodies racism. In both South Africa and the United States, Christianity was welded from toe to head with racism until it became systemic in these so-called Christian countries.
Our goal in this book, however, is to learn to read Revelation through the lens of Babylon’s timeless presence in the world to understand how Christians are to be allegiant witnesses to Jesus amid Babylons. This is a message of discipleship that turns hot lights on every Babylon in the world—including the USA and the complicity of American Christians in the ways of Babylon. American evangelicalism has lost its way and is suffocating in its own urp. We apologize for being graphic, but we are motivated by something deep in our hearts to teach and disciple Christians to go where they may not have gone in the past. Even if you aren’t sure of the connections we make, give us a couple pages to explain and set up the case we wish to make.
Premillennialism, Politics, and “Christian” Nationalism – Though there are many historical factors at work, one touchpoint that helps us understand the larger narrative begins in the 1970s and 1980s. At that time, and in the decades that followed, the evangelical movement became politicized to the point that the very term “evangelical” began to lose its core meaning. In recent years, one thinker after another has concluded that the term “evangelical” today is largely equivalent to “Republican.” And in some cases, it may even be more Republican than Christian.
Today, the word “evangelical” now largely overlaps with “Republican” and “anti-Democrat” and alignment with other GOP platform positions.
A crucial part of this story is that the term “evangelical” has, I believe, become somewhat detached from its theological roots and morphed into a term that seems to capture political sensibilities as well.
In other words, evangelicalism has increasingly become identified not by its theology, its mission, or its evangelism, but by its politics. And the problem is that these political motives are rooted in Babylon and not new Jerusalem.
The implication is that for many of those who self-identified as “evangelical,” it is not just about devotion to a local church, but to a general orientation to the world. As Republicanism and the religious right have become more enmeshed, it seems logical to assume that these less religiously devout people may consider their evangelicalism to be a question of political identity, rather than religious beliefs and customs.
Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor of history at Calvin University, in her book Jesus and John Wayne, demonstrates over and over that American evangelicalism can no longer be defined by its theological convictions but by its cultural impulses, desires, and politics.
Having replaced the Jesus of the Gospels with a vengeful warrior Christ, it’s no wonder many came to think of Trump in the same way. In 2016, many observers were stunned at evangelicals’ apparent betrayal of their own values. In reality, evangelicals did not cast their vote despite their beliefs, but because of them.
In their book Taking America Back for God, a book about how Christian nationalism is at work among evangelicals, Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry make this stunning observation: “Holding to beliefs most associated with premillennial eschatology is one of the leading predictors of Americans’ adhering to Christian nationalism.” If you ask those most associated with premillennialism—from Billy Graham on—what their politics are, you will find a clear correlation with conservative politics that often veers into American Christian nationalism.
Christian nationalism is: A cultural framework that blurs distinctions between Christian identity and American identity. . . . It is undergirded by identification with a conservative political orientation (though not necessarily a political party), Bible belief, premillennial visions of moral decay, and divine sanction for conquest. Finally, its conception of morality centers exclusively on fidelity to religion and fidelity to the nation. This is Christian nationalism—Christianity co-opted in the service of ethno-national power and separation.
Whitehead and Perry, and we could mention others like John Fea, have offered compelling evidence and arguments demonstrating that what is happening today among many evangelicals is a perversion of biblical Christianity. They name some of the most visible culprits: Jerry Falwell Sr., D. James Kennedy, Ralph Reed, James Dobson, Michele Bachmann, David Barton, Wayne Grudem, Robert Jeffress, and Mike Huckabee (and we would add Eric Metaxas).
Christian nationalism is a new iteration of wannabe Christendom, led by its own versions of Constantine and Theodosius and some of the Puritans (to get closer to our time). Those who don’t recognize Babylon in Christian nationalism need a new reading of Revelation.
But while the rogues change, it is fear upon which evangelical leaders always trade. That’s how all too often they build their platforms, secure donations, justify their reasons for existence. And fear is what drove the past two national election cycles: fear of Hillary Clinton, fear of various agendas, fear of Black Lives Matter, fear of “socialism” and AOC, fear of “losing our country.” Fear is what has caused evangelical believers to fall for QAnon and will keep them from receiving the COVID vaccine.
For them, the world has become apocalyptic and they are on the downside of this shift, viewing the other political party as the dragon, the wild things, and Babylon.
Some thirty years ago, sociologist Robert Wuthnow said that the basic intellectual and cultural divide among Christians in America is not the fault line of their theology but the cultural divide between a conservative and progressive worldview, a chasm deeper and more formative than any theological debate. I agreed with him in the 1980s. And I think today his point could be made with much greater emphasis. A divide has become a chasm. Dominant political and cultural values, left and right, have washed over churches and come to dominate their respective worldviews.
An Eschatology of Hope – It is not our aim to take sides among the two major approaches to Christian engagement in politics (conservative and progressive). Rather, we are urging Christians to comprehend what is happening in this cultural moment and find ways to discern the good and the bad on both sides. Revelation’s portrait of Babylon gives us the tools we need for discernment and hope.
Christian Eschatology’s Major Themes 1. A linear view of history: beginning and goal 2. Resurrection of the body 3. A universal judgment 4. Judgment at the end of each person’s life 5. Retribution or redemption 6. The dead are involved in this life From Brian J. Daly, The Hope of the Early Church, 219–23
The church has lost its voice because it has lost its eschatology. If we were preaching or lecturing right now, we’d slow down the pace, pausing to grab your attention. And we’d say this to you: We need discipleship, that’s what we need. We need political discipleship, that’s what we need. Now a third sentence, a little slower and a little lower: What we need is a manifesto for dissident discipleship.
A Manifesto for Dissident Disciples – The book of Revelation requires us to take a stand for the Lamb in this world. To read it well we must learn to think “theo-politically,” or to say this another way, the entire book of Revelation is about public discipleship. Revelation “reveals” God’s perspective on God’s world, and it does this by showing us how to discern the dragon, the dragon’s wild things, and the dragon’s Babylon.
Churches and pastors, professors and authors, and citizens and children are looking for a leader who will demonstrate a different Christian posture toward politics, asking for discipleship that challenges politicization in all its forms. They want pastors to preach a gospel that subverts Babylon. They ache for a clear, courageous voice of conviction. They believe in a gospel that forms dissidents who follow the Lamb and who have the courage to speak up and out about partisanism as capitulation to Babylon. We have not been discipled to think like this.
We must come out from Babylon and live in new Jerusalem by witnessing to the truth of the Lamb. This does not mean we abandon work in the public sector or cease advocating for the common good. This would be irresponsible. Instead, we do these things with our eyes open, discerning the ways of the dragon. Babylon will never be the new Jerusalem; it cannot be Christianized.
Today, some American Christians are worshiping false gods and their politics have replaced their faith. After forty years of partisanism, their knees have grown accustomed to bowing before the dragon and his wild things as they walk arm in arm—both unconsciously and consciously—into Babylon. There is much we, as American Christians, can learn from Barmen and Barth.
We encourage any who read this to take what follows as a manifesto for dissident disciples, a manifesto that riffs off Barmen’s paradigmatic declarations. First the Word of God God has spoken. God’s speech is the Logos, Word. That Word is Jesus, and in Jesus we see the essence of God.
Christian dissident discipleship begins right here: with a commitment to the Word of God in Scripture as the revelation of God for God’s people. Take and read. Eat this scroll, John was told. That is, look at it, hold it in our hands, embrace it, listen to it, chew on it, digest it, and let it do the work it alone can do. Those who surrender to the Word of God become disciples who are dissidents in Babylon.
They cease being prophets and instead become ideologues and demagogues. Such persons cannot disciple people in the book of Revelation but instead they disciple people into partisan politics.
Jesus Is the One True Lord The dragon seduces humans to worship the wild things and thereby to reject worship of the Lamb and the God on the throne. The Lamb is the Lord and Savior. His redemption, by God’s grace and through the power of the Spirit, transforms us as we gaze into the face of our Lord.
Jesus—Lord, Lamb, Logos, and Light—is over all, all the time.
We have surrendered some parts of life to Babylon and other parts to New Jerusalem. Here we follow Jesus, there we follow the US Constitution. Here we are generous, there we pay what’s due. Here we live in love, there we live in vindictive judgment. Here we are at peace, there we wage war.
Fawning over an opportunity to be in the limelight, stirred by closeness to power, and excited about making America more Christian, these sycophantic leaders have led a nation away from the gospel. Thinking proximity to power will make the church more influential is as likely as the corner shop thinking Amazon will be the source of that business’s flourishing again. Babylon tolerates no rivals.
Dissidents Discern – For some this may sound too suspicious. No government is entirely toxic, but no government is entirely good either. The US government does enough good to stir admiration and gratitude, yet corruptions infiltrate every department every day. No government is the new Jerusalem. Babylon extends its reach into every legislature, every justice system, and every executive branch. We do not live in new Jerusalem, and that means we must have the suspicion of a discerning dissident.
The Church Transcends – Fawning over Babylon’s leaders divides the church. Nearly half of the American church votes one way as one half votes the other. If one’s allegiance is to a party, if one thinks one’s party is truly Christian, one has cut off one’s sisters and brothers. Each group, because political alliance forms so much of their convictions, divides the church by appealing to Caesar. This violates our confession: the church transcends party and politics because, as the book of Revelation says often, those who worship God and the Lamb are from every tribe, nation, and tongue. The church is universal—politics and parties are local and national. Any allegiance to Caesar is nothing more than idolatrous worship of the wild things that will create division.
The dragon loves division, and the church divided loses its witness. Nothing is more obvious to America’s commentators, columnists, and editors than the church’s limpid presence in culture. No longer does our society wait for a word from the church. Our society no longer cares because the church no longer has a clarion witness.
Dissident Disciples Proclaim the Gospel – Babylon has seized the church’s heart. Its grip is so tight many can no longer distinguish their politics from the gospel. The church must return to the gospel and make the gospel the message of the church—the one heard each Sunday, the one heard in each Bible class, the one heard on the Christian’s podcast, the one heard through the Christian’s social media.
Dissident disciples tell people about Jesus, about his life, about his death and resurrection and ascension, and the redemption he has accomplished. This text in 1 Corinthians reminds us of Revelation: the Lamb who died for us becomes the Lord who wields the sword of the Logos that slays the dragon, whips the wild things, and beats Babylon. This is not about speculation or winning but about the victory of God and the Lamb over the dragon so we can live in justice and peace in the new Jerusalem. That is our gospel message. Babylon despises the gospel.
A Christoform Power – Power, one might think, is a neutral energy. In some world it might be, but in our world, power is not neutral. Power in our culture exerts power over for the sake of power for one’s agenda.
Instead, the dissident disciple, following the way of the Lamb, serves the other. Their politics is a politics for others.
The church is neither a democracy where each person votes, nor is it a monarchy with changing human leaders. The church is a mutual indwelling body of different persons living together under Christ, the Lord, Lamb, Logos and Light.
Heresy lurks when the pastor appeals to and exerts power and authority, when the pastor sees leadership as imposing his will on the congregation.
We Live in a World of Government – We are not only the church. We are also citizens in a country. Jesus, Peter, and Paul each recognized the government, and not always in affirming ways! Yet, as Paul taught the Romans to use their freedom with wisdom and not reckless rebellion (Rom 13:1–7), and as Peter instructed empire Christians in Asia Minor to respect the emperor and to do good for the sake of others because such goodness would reap benefits for the church (1 Pet 2:11–17), so we are called to do our part, to be good citizens, and to become public Christians in a way that brings good reputation to our Lord—without fawning over the wild things or trying to make Babylon the new Jerusalem. In the last forty years the church has done irreparable harm by insinuating itself into government. Instead of doing good as witnesses, we grabbed for power. Instead of witnessing to Jesus, we have become known for political allegiances, so much so that our politics are reshaping our witness into a corrupted witness.
Each act of worship, which leads as we have said to a whole life of allegiance, is an act of dissidence and subversion of the way of the dragon, who desires the worship of the wild things and loyalty to Babylon. Dissident disciples live with government but do not surrender the lordship of Jesus to any part of it. Disciples reject the lordship of the president and of Washington DC and call government to be a servant for the people in a way that mimics the service churches provide in their communities. Disciples reject the state’s powers to control the church and dissident disciples shaped by Christ refuse to let the way of the dragon’s power take hold in the churches. Disciples reject becoming an agent of government and discern when political leaders want to use the church as a tool for their own power.
The Church’s Mission Is Gospel Mission – Babylon wants us because the dragon wants us. If Babylon gets us, it knows we are no longer the Lord’s. Our mission is to declare the glories of Christ, to preach the gospel, to teach the Word, to administer the sacraments, and to live in fellowship with one another as a signpost of the new Jerusalem.
As such we don’t make mission stations in the world outposts of colonialism, nor do we attempt to colonize other countries. Instead, we preach the gospel about Jesus and call those peoples to follow Jesus in their country in their way. Mission is organic and not colonial. Missionaries are not agents of a country but agents of Jesus. That mission, then, ties us back to the gospel and to the lordship of Jesus.
J. Nelson Kraybill therefore contends that the “rapture” more accurately describes not being whisked away into heaven but our going out to meet Jesus to welcome him back to earth!
John J. Collins puts it like this: “By enabling people to let off steam by fantasizing divine vengeance, it relieves the pressure toward action in the present and enables people to accommodate themselves to the status quo for the present” (321).
Despite the varying theological systems that have been constructed to try to explain the thousand-year reign (premillennial, postmillennial, amillennial), which deserve respect even when we completely disagree, the millennium, like all other numbers in the book of Revelation, functions not as statistic but as potent symbol.
The millennium symbolically demonstrates the triumph of the allegiant witnesses: those who have suffered on account of the Jesus Christ witness will in the end rule universally and receive the special rewards promised to those who have paid the highest price (first resurrection, reign, escape from second death). John uses the symbol of the millennium to depict “the meaning, rather than predicting the manner of their vindication.”
The Progress of Progressivism – Right-wing Christians have politicized the gospel into Christian nationalism in the Republican party, while progressive evangelicals lean Democrat or social Democrat, and at times themselves wander into thinking political power is itself redemption.
Today’s progressivists then have taken progressivism’s central impulses into new places, but they still churn their energies from the same four chambers of the heart: social justice ideals, federal government’s power to get things done, centralization of power, and the agitation of the electorate. With a big chunk of verses taken from the prophets and Jesus.
Progressivism is on the left side of the political spectrum. As something political, as is the case with right-wing Christian nationalism, it too comes under the scope of Revelation’s vision for dissident disciples discerning the progress of Babylon’s powers. A standard story is that ‘right-wingers are religious’ and ‘left-wingers are secularists,’ but this has been dealt a fatal blow.
Having said that, I do want to register a final observation: both Christian nationalism and progressivism are species, some more secular than others, of Christian eschatology, and both tend to lack the discerning dissidence of the book of Revelation.
This is not a commentary on Revelation. It is rather a theology of political discipleship rooted in Revelation and how best to read it.