Recently at Cloverdale, our preaching minister completed an excellent series of lessons on the Book of Revelation. Not only was the series well done, it was also incredibly encouraging in a very difficult season (the worst statistical days of the pandemic and the bitter presidential election and its aftermath).
Revelation is somewhat of an infamous book: as an example of apocalyptic literature, to modern readers it comes across as strange, unfamiliar, and notoriously difficult to understand. Efforts at understanding the book have been further complicated by long traditions of treating Revelation as some sort of crystal ball that gives detailed geopolitical predictions about the time period of the interpreter in question. This has led to all sorts of fantastical claims—Christians needing to support the modern nation of Israel in building a third Temple to hasten the return of Jesus, references in Revelation to the USSR, or the COVID-19 vaccine being the mark of the beast—that would have been absolutely unimaginable to John, the author of Revelation, or the first-century Christians to whom he was writing.
Although the imaginative imagery and apocalyptic genre of Revelation are challenging to us as modern readers, it remains an intelligible book if we seek to understand it on its own terms. John is writing to seven congregations of Christians in Asia Minor about things that actually would have been relevant to them in their time and place. He peels back the curtain to allow his audience to see the spiritual realities that lay behind their daily experiences.
Specifically, he addresses the pressure that Rome, the great beast (itself under the influence of Satan, the great dragon), is placing upon Christians to deny their allegiance to King Jesus and instead succumb to the social, economic, and religious demands of Caesar. To those faithfully resisting Roman pressure, John encourages them to persevere with the assurance that Jesus has already claimed the victory over Satan, and that His followers will be vindicated. To those who have already compromised their faith and acquiesced to the demands of Rome, John’s message is one of warning and judgment: they must repent before they are destroyed along with the rest of God’s enemies.The message of Revelation would have come across as strikingly political to the original audience. Click To Tweet
Though challenging to us, this message would have been easily understood by John’s original audience(s), and it would have come across as strikingly political. After all, the Mediterranean world of the New Testament time period was all about Rome. Propaganda proclaimed that Rome was good news (“gospel”) for the world and the bringer of peace. Rome deified its emperors and depicted them as omnipotent rulers whose dominion extended over the entire earth. So interconnected was Roman government, Roman religion, Roman military might, and Roman society that it was impossible to be considered a good citizen or a good neighbor if one resisted the expectation to sacrifice to the gods or pledge allegiance to Caesar above all else. And in such a context, John depicts Rome as a hideous beast under the influence of evil spiritual forces! This is a deeply political text.
In light of this reality—the evil and corruption of the world around them, what are Christians to do? Before we answer that question, we should first note what they are not encouraged to do:
- They are not encouraged to obsess over how beastly Rome is and constantly rail against it because of this. After all, it should be expected that beasts will act in beastly ways. Rome is a beast, not the Bride of Christ!
- Furthermore, they are not encouraged to “Make Rome Great Again”, hearkening back to some fictitious history when the beast was somehow not a beast.
- On the other hand, neither are they encouraged to revolt against Rome or tear down all the pillars upon which society is built and work to create a utopian society where justice reigns.
Instead, John encourages those to whom he is writing to remain faithful to Jesus, their Lord, at all costs. Keeping with the political nature of Revelation, as I have discussed before, the statement “Jesus is Lord” is an inherently political claim:
“Lord” is an interesting word; to us, it is almost exclusively a religious term. We tend to think of it as a synonym for “God”, but really, “Lord” was a favorite title of Jesus in the early church. And it’s not primarily a religious title, either; it was a title with distinctly political overtones. “Lord” was the official title for the Roman Emperor: laws, edicts and decrees were signed “Lord Caesar.” This means that when early Christians called Jesus “Lord”, they were making a political statement: by saying that Jesus was Lord, they were simultaneously saying that Caesar was not. Jesus was the One who had absolute authority over their lives, He set the standards by which they were to live, He was the One to whom they owed primary allegiance, and it was He who sat on the throne of the universe.
The Book of Revelation may not tell us when Jesus will return or what will happen in the Middle East next year, but it is incredibly relevant. It makes the striking political claim to Christians that, rather than worry about the kingdoms of this world—which are beastly and will one day come to nothing—we are to “return to our first love” and live out the confession that Jesus is Lord in our daily lives. Instead of trying to reform or uphold or overthrow the society in which we live in order to make it better, our focus should be on living as citizens of God’s kingdom, the better reality that already exists. It is a kingdom that will never be destroyed and will one day supplant and replace all earthly kingdoms. It is a kingdom that subverts worldly understandings of power and wealth, led by a King who laid down unparalleled power and unimaginable wealth to live as a servant and die as a sacrifice to save His subjects.
I have frequently said that I am not a very political person, but that is not technically accurate. Certainly, I am not very political in the sense that I do not focus on partisan loyalties in the American political spectrum, but I confess that Jesus is Lord, and seek to place my allegiance to Him at the center of my life.
As the Book of Revelation shows us, that is a very political claim.I confess that Jesus is Lord, and seek to place my allegiance to Him at the center of my life. As the Book of Revelation shows, that is a very political claim. Click To Tweet