What on earth is God up to?

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say:

“Now have come the salvation and the power
and the kingdom of our God,
and the authority of his Messiah.

For the accuser of our brothers and sisters,
who accuses them before our God day and night,
has been hurled down.

They triumphed over him
by the blood of the Lamb
and by the word of their testimony;
they did not love their lives so much
as to shrink from death.

Therefore rejoice, you heavens
and you who dwell in them!
But woe to the earth and the sea,
because the devil has gone down to you!
He is filled with fury,
because he knows that his time is short.” (Rev 12.10–12)

If the world around us appears to be ‘going to hell in a handcart’ (to coin an expression), and yet we believe that God is in charge, it is reasonable to ask what this God is doing about this world? That is the question that John is repeatedly asking—as we can see by the way he structures what he writes. His visions move from a vivid account of the chaos of the world to equal vivid accounts of the serene drama of God’s throne in heaven, often by means of jolting transitions in the text. Revelation furnishes our imagination with images of the four horsemen, fiery mountains, stinging scorpions, hideous beasts and apocalyptic battles at Armageddon—but equally with myriads of angels, harpists seated on clouds, pearly gates, and a city paved with gold. Very often, the images in the second list offer an answer to the images in the first.

These verses come in what every commentator agrees is the central and pivotal passage in Revelation. The story of the woman clothed with the sun, pursued by a dragon and giving birth to a child is a strange one to our ears—because it is making use of a story (about Leto, Apollo and Python) with which we are not familiar. But this tale—of the birth of a divine warrior who, against the odds, defeats the chaos monster who was pursuing his mother in order to devour the hero at his birth (which you can read as Fable 140 here)—was well known to John and his readers, not least because Apollo’s sister, Artemis, was worshipped at the splendid temple in Ephesus. Just as political cartoonists do today, John dropped into the story the characters he was really interested in—the exiled people of God (the woman), Jesus (the male child), and Satan (the serpent-monster)—and used it to make his point. It is Jesus’ death, resurrection and exaltation to the throne of God which offers the ultimate answer to all the questions we have about how the world is and what God is doing about it.

As elsewhere in the book, this hymn makes John’s message clear. How does God’s rule (his kingdom) come to be realised in the world? First, by that unique, gracious cosmic act of God in Jesus: ‘by the blood of the lamb’. And second, by a succession of shared, courageous, local acts of faithfulness by all the people of God: ‘and by the word of their testimony’.

If you want to see God’s gracious order come to the chaos of the world around you today, you need but two things. First, to be rooted in the transcendent reality of what God has done in Jesus. Second, to be committed to faithful expression of that, in word and deed, in the context God has placed you.

(This a slightly longer version of the ‘Word for the Week’ published today by LICC, the London Institute of Contemporary Christianity. The previous instalments were ‘Who’s in Charge Around Here?’ and ‘What on Earth is Going On?’ If you want to receive the next instalment of this series straight into your inbox, you can sign up to LICC’s mailing list here.)

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1 thought on “What on earth is God up to?”

  1. I recall working on this passage in my first year of studies at Westminster College, Cambridge. In a fascinating exercise (and one I have used with other people), we were tasked with ‘mapping’ the relationships described within the chapter, and *without* reference to anything outside of the chapter. A large sheet of paper, coloured pens and a logical mind were an asset!

    It proved to be a good discipline for reading what *is* said, and what is *not* said, and doing so without importing other data. Of course, that is not at all adequate for textual interpretation. But it is crucial for making sure that one does read the actual text itself first before making assumptions about what it is saying. (eg: yes, of course we know that the Lamb refers to Jesus, who is the Messiah, the male child …but that equation comes from *outside* the chapter).


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