May 14

Revelation Part 3: The Ongoing Restoration


In Part One, I noted the varying uses of verb tense in Revelation. As I pointed out, verses 20:7-10 contain 12 verbs; 6 are in the past, 2 are present tense, and 4 are future tense. Similarly, the description of the fall of Babylon contains both past and future tenses. This makes it impossible to assign the events in Revelation literally to the past, present or future– at least, not without suggesting that John didn’t say what he meant.

Revelation thus portrays events that occur outside our concept of time. In that sense, they both have happened and will happen. Put another way, they are continually happening. Thus, Revelation is not a prophetic view of the future, distant or otherwise. It is a description of God and Christ working in the world throughout our concept of history.

This puts the events described in a very different context. As I mentioned before, books could be written (and have been written) about the contents of Revelation. This, on the other hand. will be a very short summary.

Let’s take the example of the seven seals. First, I find it striking that, as the Lamb breaks each seal, the four living creatures (the symbols of God’s creation) “call out, as with a voice of thunder, ‘Come!'” (6:1). I’ve noted the writer’s love of irony. In Genesis 1, God calls Creation into being; here, Creation calls God’s work into being.

As the first four seals are broken, four riders are released. The first is the lover of power, the second is war, the third is famine and poverty, and the fourth is death. How often in history have we seen this cycle? Does it predict the future? Of course it does, for whenever a power-hungry leader arises, war and suffering and death follow.

With the fifth seal, the martyrs call out for justice, and with the sixth the existing structures are thrown into turmoil. Then there’s an interlude in which the 144,000 chosen and the multitude of believers from every nation are identified. This is a choosing up of sides between believers and evil.

With the breaking of the seventh seal, the seven trumpets bring forth plagues and tortures. Yet, as 9:20-21 makes clear, the point of these disasters is to cause people to repent, turn to God, and change their ways. They do not repent, and the story continues.

Then the seventh angel blew his trumpet, and there were loud voices in heaven, saying,

“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord
    and of his Messiah,
and he will reign forever and ever.” (11:15)

The Kingdom has been established! But the woes are not over. The dragon and the two beasts emerge. The first beast makes war on the believers, but an angel warns:

Let anyone who has an ear listen:

If you are to be taken captive,
    into captivity you go;
if you kill with the sword,
    with the sword you must be killed.

Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints. (13:9-10)

Clearly, just as Jesus conquers with the Word, the believers are to eschew violence.

Even now, there is an opportunity for those who follow evil to repent (14:6). Yet seven plagues follow, ending with the fall of Babylon. Here, too, there’s a strong sense of irony: Babylon, the Great Whore, is destroyed not by God, but by those who serve her (17:16-18). Similarly, there is an entire chapter (18) dedicated to lamenting the fall of Babylon, the world’s great economic power– and yet the fall itself is never described. An angel declares before the plagues, “Fallen is Babylon the Great!” (14:8), and again after the plagues as the beneficiaries of Babylon lament (18:2), but the fall itself is never recounted.

Then follows the battle at Harmageddon, in which Christ the Warrior defeats the beast and slays the kings of the earth with the sword of his tongue (19:17-21). Satan is thrown down for a thousand years, then rises and is defeated. The dead are judged.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. (21:1-2)

Yet here again, though there is a great deal of rejoicing for the wedding and a detailed description of the New Jerusalem, the wedding is never described. It is apparently already accomplished. Through the city runs the river of life, which comes from God and the Lamb. The vision closes with these words:

[H]is servants will worship him;  they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads.  And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (22:4-6)

In the epilogue, John relates that the time is “coming soon,” yet “Let the evildoer still do evil, and the filthy still be filthy, and the righteous still do right, and the holy still be holy” (22:11). His benediction closes:

Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift. (22:17)

Revelation is surely a vision of hope, yet not hope for the distant future. (It has, after all, been almost 2,000 years since it was written to give hope to the churches of Asia.) The gift of the water of life is available now. Babylon is fallen now. Satan is defeated now.

Revelation is a powerful exhortation that evil doesn’t have the last word, Jesus does. Every day.


January 20

Response to Evil

In my previous post, I looked at the problem with evil, namely that the Bible doesn’t support many of our assumptions about it. To quote a wise man, “Nothing, absolutely nothing happens in God’s world by mistake.” That’s not an easy truth to accept. When I see children maimed in war, good people killed in horrible ways, and unborn babies dying before they come into the world, I want to believe God has nothing to do with this. I need to believe it!

But that’s not the truth. I have (generally) come to accept that God’s wisdom is beyond my understanding. I don’t like many of the things he allows to happen in the world. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t him. I trust that he has a purpose, even when I can’t imagine what that purpose is.

As I wrote previously, my wife miscarried what would have been my first child. And it happened as we went to the doctor expecting to hear a heartbeat, but there was no heartbeat. It wasn’t just the loss, it was the cruelty of the dashed hopes that angered me. I raged. Yet that experience forced me to acknowledge that God, whom I had rejected, was indeed active in the world. It was the beginning of my coming to faith.

I do not believe that God killed our baby so that I would become Christian. That’s far too small a way of looking at it. Similarly, when I had the vision in the war zone that included the realization that “If there was no war, there would be no peacemakers; blessed are the peacemakers,” I could not conclude that God allowed war for the purpose of calling us to be peacemakers. His plan is far greater than that.

But there is some truth in those assessments, limited as they are.

I’ve written about the paradox of free will. Yes, we have to believe we have it. Yet if God wants us to go to Ninevah, we’re probably going to end up in Ninevah.

But if God has that kind of power, why does he use catastrophes to get our attention? Why doesn;t he implement social justice throughput the world?

The answer is remarkably simple: God wants us to love. Love is a choice. Love forced is not love at all. He doesn’t force us to love him, but he sometimes does use some forceful convincing. And he doesn’t force us to love each other, but he does push us in that direction.

The metaphor of God the Father is important. Sooner or later, a father helps his children learn to do for themselves. You made a mess? You clean it up. You’re old enough that I’m not going to do it for you.

Yes, God could change the world. But he wants us to learn to do it.

Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these… (John 14:12)

We have a sinful nature (Romans 3:19-20). We also long for God (Psalm 62:1). Which will we choose?

Left to our own devices, we too often choose the former. We see and act for our own gain, not God’s. We meet disagreement with scorn and hatred. We meet perceived injustice with retribution and violence. And those whom we meet in these ways react in the same way, perpetuating the cycle.

When I saw the horrors war had inflicted on innocent civilians, I wanted to kill someone. When my wife lost our baby, I needed to blame someone, and I raged at God.

But I didn’t kill anyone. Instead, I worked for peace, and helped bring about a cease-fire. And instead of rejecting God, I wound up affirming him. But I can’t take credit for either of those results. That was God’s work.

This, then, is our choice: when faced with events that trigger our sinful nature, do we give in to that nature? Do we seek vengeance? Do we nurture hatred? Do we seek to rely on ourselves for our well-being? Or do we let God convince us to turn to him? Do we choose love?

That is where the real battle between good and evil lies: in our own hearts. The war between good and evil is not fought on some celestial plane, but inside ourselves.

Jesus challenges us to choose his way over our own. And so does God. Every event, every blessing, every perceived evil has but one purpose: to turn our hearts to God.

January 14

The Problem of Evil

Who can command and have it done,
    if the Lord has not ordained it?
Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
    that good and bad come? (Lamentations 3:37-38)

I was raised in a culture that believes that the universe is a battleground for good and evil. Satan, a fallen angel, rules this world, until the coming of Jesus when Satan will be vanquished. And we need to be certain we’re on the right side.

The problem is, that’s not what the Bible says. On the contrary, in Genesis, God declares his creation “good,” and he says it more than once. The sin of Adam and Eve has specific consequences for Adam, Eve, and the serpent. Humans get cast out of the garden to experience suffering and hard work. But nowhere does God declare that his world has become anything less than good. Even when he sends the flood, his reason is because of “the wickedness of humankind” (Genesis 6:5).

Then there’s the question of Satan, who supposedly rebelled against God and rules this earth. But again, that’s not what the Bible says. In fact, the Book of Job makes clear that Satan does what God allows him to do and no more (Job 1:11-12).

Satan next appears in Zechariah’s fourth vision (Zechariah 3:2). Here, God rebukes Satan. But the context is important. Satan is the Accuser, and Jerusalem has been sent into exile for her crimes. Now the exiled people of Jerusalem confess their guilt (Zech 1:6), and God revokes the sentence (Zech 3:4). God’s rebuke represents a rejection of Satan’s accusations– accusations of which, as the previous prophets made clear, Jerusalem was entirely guilty. But because of her repentance, God now sets aside those accusations. She is forgiven.

Where else does Satan appear in the Old Testament? Nowhere. (In some translations, the Hebrew word satan, or accuser, is rendered as a proper name, Satan, but without a definite article, al-Satan, it does not refer to Satan the being.)

Which leads us to the New Testament. Interestingly, in the first reference (Matthew 12:24ff), Satan is also identified with YHWH’s ancient archenemy, Ba’al, the Canaanite fertility god. The name “Beelzebul” literally means “The Great Lord Ba’al.” (The common variation “Beelzebub” is actually a Hebrew pun meaning “Lord of the Flies,” which insulted those who worshiped Ba’al.) In this passage, Jesus describes Satan as having a kingdom and being a lord of demons. But he does not say that Satan’s kingdom includes, or even exists on, the earth. Indeed, in verse 28 Jesus tells us that because he casts out demons by the Spirit of God, “the kingdom of God has come to you”– right here on Earth, right now.

There are many references to Satan prowling for souls. As the Accuser in Job, he prowled the Earth in a similar fashion. Paul, in 2 Corinthians 4:4, even refers to the “god of this world [who] has blinded the minds of unbelievers…” But the question remains: Does Satan do this with or without God’s permission?

The most graphic description of Satan and his works appears in Revelation. He first appears in 12:3 as a “portent” or sign in heaven in the form of a dragon. He’s identified as Satan in 12:9, after we are told in 12:7 that “A war broke out in heaven…” We are not told how or why the war broke out, but again, the context of this passage is essential. The second woe has just passed (11:14). And we are told that the third woe is coming very soon. Then the seventh angel blows his trumpet and announces the Kingdom of God, and the ark is revealed. But note well: these woes are warned and created by God, not by Satan.

What does this mean for us? It means that nothing that happens is outside the purview of God. His whole intention for us is for us to turn to him and love him (Deuteronomy 6:4-5). Sometimes he uses kind words. Sometimes he uses more forceful measures. Sometimes I wonder what he’s thinking. I often wonder why the innocent suffer. But eventually I have to surrender to the truth: he is God and I’m not. I will never be able to understand his thinking.

Christian mystic Julian of Norwich, writing in 1413, described this very well:

For a man beholds some deeds well done and some deeds evil. But our Lord beholds them not so. For as all that has being in nature is of God’s making, so are all things that are done in property of God’s doing. For it is easy to understand that the best deed is well done, and the highest, so well as the best deed is done, and the highest, so well is the least deed done, and all in property, and in the order that our Lord has ordained to it from without beginning. For there is no doer but he. (Revelations of Divine Love, 13)

(To be continued.)