How can Revelation help us be faithful in testing times?

I was asked by the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity (LICC) to write a short series of three reflections on Revelation: Faithfulness in Testing Times for their weekly email Word for the Week which is sent out on Monday mornings. This is what I said.

1. The Word We Need

The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. 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…I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. (Revelation 1.1–3, 9)

As we struggle through this third lockdown, hearing both scientists and politicians warn us not to hope for a date when life returns to ‘normal’, we long to hear a word from God – or perhaps three.

First, we long for a revelation – a pulling back of the curtain, so that we can see, amidst all the confusion and chaos of conflicting accounts of what is ‘really’ going on, some heavenly truth. We are not the first. ‘Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down…!’ cries Isaiah, faced with the promise of God’s faithfulness, and the reality of the people’s sin (Isaiah 64:1). The heavens were indeed rent at Jesus’ baptism – yet John’s readers, at the eastern end of the Roman Empire, are under pressure both from jealous Jews who resent this new Messianic movement, and pagan peers who demand they conform to cultural norms. They need a fresh revelation of who Jesus is, what he has done, and what it means to be faithful to him.

That is what God gives to John to pass on – a revelation (‘apocalypse’) of Jesus, God’s anointed, slain for us yet raised by God, who now shares his Father’s throne. This is no novel belief, but stands in the long line of prophecy – indeed, Revelation has been called ‘the climax of prophecy’. John shares what he sees and hears in words saturated with the Old Testament: redemption through Jesus is the fulfilment of all God had promised to his people.

But beyond a revelation, beyond a shared prophecy, we long for a word to us. What John writes is an apocalyptic, prophetic letter, written to particular people in a particular place at a particular time. It can become a particular word to us too, as we listen to what God is saying to us through what John said to his readers.

John’s central assumption is that we have three things in Jesus: suffering (‘tribulation’ in the KJV); kingdom; and patient endurance (Revelation 1:9). Let’s rejoice in the healing grace of God’s rule in our lives, brought by Jesus and made real by the Spirit. Let’s also share in the groaning of this age, which does not yet see the redemption we enjoy. And, in the tension of these two, let’s commit ourselves to live lives of patient endurance as we look to the return of Jesus and hold out hope to the world.

2. Seeing and Hearing

On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet… I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me.

Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel… 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 in front of the Lamb.

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them.’ (Revelation 1.10, 12; 7,4, 9; 21.2–3)

Do you prefer to see things, or hear them? Do you like reading books, or playing audio books? Watching television, or listening to the radio? We have become a culture of the visual, with the explosion of images and videos on the internet and delivered by streaming services – yet radio listenership is also on the rise, and there are now more podcasts than you can shake a stick at.

The dynamic of ‘hearing and seeing’ is threaded all through the Book of Revelation – yet, strangely, most ordinary readings miss this. We are so fixed on the idea that John is describing visions (things he sees) that we miss the role of all his auditions (things he hears) – which turns out to be 43% of the English text! (Yes, I counted!)

But what John hears and what he sees are closely related – the one interprets the other, and together they paint the full picture of John’s understanding. In the opening chapter, he hears a voice ‘like a trumpet’, an Old Testament description of the voice of God speaking to his people (see Exodus 19:16) – but he sees ‘one like a son of man’, dressed like a priest, like the Ancient of Days, and like an angel. Jesus is thus the word of God, our High Priest, and the one who brings God’s message to us. In chapter 7, John hears that God’s people are a counted, Jewish army in serried ranks – whom he sees as uncountable and multi-ethnic, praising God having come through deep suffering. And in chapter 21, he sees a city coming from heaven to earth – but hears that this is the presence of God with his people. The future intimacy of God with his people is described in the medium of extravagant architectural metaphor.

All this reflects a consistent Johannine theme of ‘what we have seen and heard’ (1 John 1:3; Acts 4:20), but the terms have wider significance. To ‘see’ is to understand, and one day we will see God even as we are already seen by God (1 Corinthians 13:12). To ‘hear’ is to obey (Deuteronomy 6:4), and one day our small obediences will be perfected (Philippians 1:6).

This week, what new thing will you see about God – what new understanding is he leading you to? And what new thing will you hear – what new call to a fruitful life of joyful obedience?

3. Where Do You Think You’re Going?

One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates…

The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp… Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life… Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb. (Revelation 21.9–12, 23, 27; 22.1)

‘Where do you think you’re going?’ In Alan Bennett’s famous spoof sermon, the metaphor of journeying becomes a clichéd image of direction in life. But the spoof only works because the metaphor is so powerful – we might ‘take the road less travelled’, ‘start the longest journey with the first step’, or choose to ‘walk together’ with a friend.

The metaphor is found all over the Bible. Jesus called the first disciples to ‘Come, follow me’ (Mark 1:17). The whole middle section of Luke’s gospel is styled as a long, meandering journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. Paul talks about ‘keeping in step’ with the Spirit (Galatians 5:25), drawing on Old Testament and Jewish images.

The Book of Revelation also uses this metaphor of journeying, but in a more oblique way. John does his theological painting by numbers: the two witnesses, an image of God’s faithful people, prophesy for 1,260 days (Revelation 11:3), which (with months of 30 days) is the same as the 42 months during which the outer court is trampled and the beast makes war on the saints (Revelation 11:2; 13:5-7). John is recalculating Daniel’s time, times, and half a time of ‘tribulation’ (Daniel 7:25: 3.5 years = 42 months) and identifying it with the Exodus journey through the wilderness – which took 42 years stopping at 42 different places (Numbers 33).

In other words, we who follow the Lamb are on a new Exodus journey, from slavery to freedom in a new Promised Land. We are returning from exile to our true home in Jesus, and suffering tribulation until sin and death are finally defeated (1 Corinthians 15:55). Our destination is the New Jerusalem, which is not so much a place we will live but a people we will be – a community that is safe (high walls), welcoming (open gates), holy (no unclean thing will enter), radiant with the glory of God, and through which flows the Spirit, the river of life. And unlike on other journeys, as we head towards this goal, we actually become more and more like the place we are heading to – changed from one degree of glory to another (2 Corinthians 3:18).

So this week, as you go about life on your frontline, in which direction will you be travelling? Away from this destination, or one step closer to it? Becoming less, or more, like the people we will one day be?

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