The Response of the Church
The Book of Revelation is a great drama that details the contest between the Roman Empire and the Christian Church, and between the Lordship of Caesar and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The conclusion is obvious. Evil shall be defeated and Christ shall be victor! But there remains a question: What do we do in the interim while we wait for the final outcome of this struggle?
John is well aware of what many have been doing. Some have borne witness for their faith and perished. Others have renounced Christ and walk with him no more. Others have publicly renounced him, but only under duress, and after lapsing returned to the church looking for restoration. Others have made a half retreat into Judaism, a protected religion, and have found what they think is a safe half-way house. Others have lived their Christian faith, like Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea did before the crucifixion, as secret disciples, closet Christians.
What then is John’s Advice to the struggling churches of Asia Minor? Three words weave their way throughout this book. Those words are: Witness, Work and Worship. Let’s unpackage them.
The Greek word for “witness” in English versions is sometimes replaced with its synonyms: to bear testimony, to testify, or its negative “did not deny”. In a courtroom, witnesses giving testimony is seen as crucial. In John’s day to bear testimony before the Roman magistrate could be a matter of life and death. It is why this word has wide circulation throughout this book. Notice the following list of people that John describes as witnesses.
Jesus was a witness.
When Jesus is first introduced to us, he is described “and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness,(1:5)
I would have chosen a different item to head the list of descriptions of Jesus Christ, but it was the word the church under fire needed to hear earlier than later. (see also 3:14, 22:16, 22:20.)
John was a witness.
When John introduces himself to his readers this is how he begins, “I, John, your brother who share with you in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance, was on the island called Patmos because of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.” (1:9) John is in exile because he too was a faithful witness, having already gone through what they are currently facing.
The Church of former days.
But it is not just Jesus and John who have borne witness, The churches to whom John writes have had their share of witnesses who have also suffered similar consequences. “I know where you are living, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you are holding fast to my name, and you did not deny your faith in me even in the days of Antipas my witness, my faithful one, who was killed among you, where Satan lives (2:13) Later in the book he refers to these witnesses of earlier days that testified to their faith in Jesus. “ When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given.” (6:9)
The two witnesses.
In the middle of his book John introduces us to two heroic figures. They are given no names, and speculation is rife trying to identify who they were or who they might be, but for John they are first and foremost witnesses.
3 And I will grant my two witnesses authority to prophesy for one thousand two hundred sixty days, wearing sackcloth….”
7 When they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them. (11:3 & 7.)
Other saints in the drama.
The saints in the past were faithful witnesses, but as John pens his great drama the people who face the foe in the near future also take the task of witnessing with great seriousness.
“Then the dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her children, those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus.(12:17)
“And I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus.(17:6)
Those who conquer in the end.
And in the end of the story, when the church is given insight into its future, John provides the justification for their witness before the powers that oppress.
11 But they conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony,
for they did not cling to life even in the face of death.(12:11)
4 Then I saw thrones, and those seated on them were given authority to judge. I also saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God”. (20:4)
What is intriguing about all these cases is that everyone of them paid a high price, some the ultimate price, for bearing witness. There is no naivety in John. He knows about the cost of discipleship, but he also knows with the hymn writer,
Thy saints in all this glorious war
shall conquer though they die,
they seize the triumph from afar,
by faith they bring it nigh.
The Greek word used for witness is the word Martureo from which we derive the word martyr. If you testify it might well get you killed. But, John urges his readers, nonetheless, to leave the closet and get out into the public space and there bear witness, before the magistrate, and on the other 364 days let your neighbours know with whom they stand.
Yet in John’s writing it is not only Jesus and his church past, present and future who bear witness. That task is also given to angels. “Then I fell down at his feet to worship him, but the angel said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades who hold the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy.” (19:10) The word “angel” is the same word as “messenger” and the whole brunt of angelic intervention is to bear witness to what God is doing in Christ within the church and world. This is made clear in the great doxologies found in chapter 5 when it is revealed who it is who will win in the end.
11 Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 singing with full voice,
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”
13 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,
“To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might
forever and ever!”
14 And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped. (5:11-14)
Beside the word “witness”, a second word is needed. It is the word “work”.
To the seven churches the Risen Christ says frequently, “I know your works.”
“I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance” 2:2, and also in 2:19, 3:1-2, 3:8, 3:15.
In those same letters and in other parts of the book he infers that they will be rewarded on the basis of their works. 2:23 “I will give to each of you as your works deserve” and in 2:26 “To everyone who conquers and continues to do my works to the end, I will give authority over the nations” (See also 14:13, 19:8)
People will also be judged on the basis of their works. 2:5 “Remember then from what you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lamp stand from its place” (See also 20:12-13, 22:12)
Throughout the book the words “Be faithful” recur. Only 3 times in this book is the word “faith” used as a noun, but more frequently is the adjective “faithful” used. Faith is less what we have, and more how we act.
Jesus was faithful: 1:5, 3:14, 19:11
Antipas was faithful: 2:13
We are to be faithful: 2:10, 13:10. 14:12, 17:14
Then we are exhorted to “Keep the Commandments of God”. 14:12 “Here is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God.” (See also 1:3, 2:25-26, 3:3, 3:8,10, 12:17, 22:7)
Why is this word needed? Christians under persecution can develop a siege mentality. They can be so concerned about their own survival, that they cease to be the light of the world, where others see their good deeds and glorify the Father who is in heaven. The Church may not justify herself by her deeds, but she does indicate by her deeds with whom she stands and for what purpose she exists. It would be a tragedy for the church to be safe, only by avoiding its very purpose for existence, which is ministry to the world as the servants of God.
For those of us who get nervous about the word “works” due to Luther’s distrust of the word, need to read Paul in Ephesians 2:8, 9 & particularly verse10: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
This entire book is about bearing witness before the world, and to continue to do the work that God has called us to, and yet equal in importance is the act of worship. Whom shall we worship? To whom shall we give ultimate allegiance?
This is a book that points us time and again to worship that is false.
Throughout the book, creatures other than God are worshipped: 13:4-8, 11-15.
They worshiped the dragon, for he had given his authority to the beast, and they worshiped the beast, saying, “Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” The beast was given a mouth uttering haughty and blasphemous words, and it was allowed to exercise authority for forty-two months. It opened its mouth to utter blasphemies against God, blaspheming his name and his dwelling, that is, those who dwell in heaven. 7 Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. It was given authority over every tribe and people and language and nation, 8 and all the inhabitants of the earth will worship it….
Then I saw another beast that rose out of the earth; it had two horns like a lamb and it spoke like a dragon. It exercises all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose mortal wound had been healed. 13 It performs great signs, even making fire come down from heaven to earth in the sight of all; 14 and by the signs that it is allowed to perform on behalf of the beast, it deceives the inhabitants of earth, telling them to make an image for the beast that had been wounded by the sword and yet lived; 15 and it was allowed to give breath to the image of the beast so that the image of the beast could even speak and cause those who would not worship the image of the beast to be killed. (see also 9:20)
Not only is worship offered to creatures and things other than God, but the name of God is blasphemed:
The fourth angel poured his bowl on the sun, and it was allowed to scorch people with fire; they were scorched by the fierce heat, but they cursed the name of God, who had authority over these plagues, and they did not repent and give him glory.
The fifth angel poured 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 sores, and they did not repent of their deeds. 16:9-11. (see also 13:5-6, 17:3)
False worship, however, will be dealt with, for this book condemns all idolatry and blasphemy in no uncertain terms.
Then another angel, a third, followed them, crying with a loud voice, “Those who worship the beast and its image, and receive a mark on their foreheads or on their hands, they will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image and for anyone who receives the mark of its name.” 14:9-11 (Se also 16:2, 19:20)
But, to have false worship condemned or eradicated is hardly sufficient. The Church is to offer God true worship.
Throughout The Revelation there are doxologies that grow more fulsome as the book continues. There are sixteen of these hymns of high praise that punctuate the narrative. Note the increase of the adjectives of praise in the opening chapters:
1:6 to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen
4:8-11, And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing, “Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.” And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to the one who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall before the one who is seated on the throne and worship the one who lives forever and ever; they cast their crowns before the throne, singing,11 “You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”
5:8-13. When the Lamb had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb, each holding a harp and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. They sing a new song:
“You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;
you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God,
and they will reign on earth.”
Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels surrounding the throne and the living creatures and the elders; they numbered myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 singing with full voice,
“Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,
“To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” And the elders fell down and worshiped.
(See also 7:9-12, 11:15-19, 14:2-3, 14:6-7, 15:2-4, 19:1-8.)
Final instructions: Worship God!
22:8-9. I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I heard and saw them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who showed them to me; but he said to me, “You must not do that! I am a fellow servant with you and your comrades the prophets, and with those who keep the words of this book. Worship God!” (See also 19:9-10)
When Caesar, or the empire, or any monarch, government, or organization demands our ultimate allegiance, the church must say “NO!” All worship is reserved for the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Let it be so.
Let us hear the conclusion of the matter (Ecclesiastes 11:13)
Throughout the past two thousand years the church has faced terrible times. It has often looked like the end of the world and the death of the church. Our foes have been legion and are so terrifying that they cause our hearts to fail from fear. The only cure we have seen is getting to heaven in some grand escape. But, throughout the ages when threatened by incessant wars, virulent persecution, recurring plague, earthquake, floods and famine, and in spite of the incessant splintering of the church, God has not rescued his church from those horrifying episodes. Instead he has called us to faith, and not to fear; he has called us to not to despair, but hope.
This book is not intended to scare us, or puzzle us, but to encourage us in life’s darkest hours. May we all find joy is reading this book again, for the first time!