Live not by Lies (Nor by Fear)
“For God has not given us his [S]pirit of timidity, but of power and love and a sound mind”
(2 Timothy 1:7)
“Relatively few contemporary Christians are prepared to suffer for the faith, because the therapeutic society that has formed them denies the purpose of suffering in the first place, and the idea of bearing pain for the sake of truth seems ridiculous.”
Featured Image: “The Fall of the Rebel Angels” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1562
Drawn to Revelation
It is not surprising to find oneself drawn to “the Revelation from Jesus Christ … to his servant John” (Rev 1:1) at a time such as this. To be sure, the Revelation is a strange book with bizarre creatures and indecipherable episodes re-imagined and re-purposed from an ancient vault of Biblical apocalyptic imagery. And, as GK Chesterton so aptly put it; “Though St. John the Evangelist saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creatures so wild as one of his own commentators.” Yet instinctively we sense, if the reader would “heed” (1:3) the words in this book, navigational directives will emerge by which to surmount tumultuous times. Herein lies the allure of the apocalyptic.
Consider the following excerpts in sequence.
After these things I looked, and behold, a door opened in heaven, and the first voice that I heard, a voice as of a trumpet speaking with me, one saying; “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after these things.” Straightaway, I was in the Spirit: and behold, there was a throne set in heaven, and One sitting upon the throne …
This enticing scene presents itself immediately following the letters to the churches in Asia Minor. Clearly what is in view is a heavenly scene referencing the court-room of Daniel 7, a setting in which all truth is unveiled concerning kingdoms, and in particular, the enigmatic ascendency of that character of all characters, the Son of Man. As the reader continues, curious details emerge within the throne room itself including the reappearance of a peculiar scroll, left sealed and unopened for an appointed time ever since it conspicuously presented itself in the visions of Ezekiel, Isaiah and Daniel …
And I saw in the right hand of the One on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed up with seven seals. And I saw a strong angel proclaiming with a great voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll, and to break its seals?” And no one in heaven, or on the earth, or under the earth, was able to open the scroll, or to look into it. And I began to weep greatly, because no one was found worthy to open the scroll, or to look into it: and one of the elders said to me, “Stop weeping; behold, the Lion that is of the tribe of Judah [cf. Gen 49], the Root of David [cf. Isa 11], has overcome so as to open the scroll and its seven seals.” And I saw in the midst of the throne (and of the four living creatures), and the elders, a Lamb standing, as slain, having seven horns, and seven eyes, which are the seven Spirits of God, sent out into all the earth. And He came, and He took it out of the right hand of Him who sat on the throne. And when He had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the and twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, having each one a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying, ‘Worthy are You to take the scroll, and to open its seals: for You were slain, and purchased for God with Your blood men and women from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and You made them to be a kingdom and priests to our God; and they will reign upon the earth.”
(Revelation 5:1-10; cf. vv.11-14—what must be the pinnacle of Christology in the New Testament.)
Taking leave of this breath-taking cacophony of praise, the Revelation swiftly moves to introduce the reader to the infamous four horsemen of the apocalypse in chapter 6 with devastation in their wake, until at the breaking of the fifth seal, John records:
… I saw underneath the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God, and for the testimony they held; and they cried with a loud voice, saying, “How long, O Lord, holy and true, will You refrain from judging and avenging our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest a little while longer, until the number of their fellow-servants and brothers who were to be killed as they were, should be completed.
(Revelation 6:9-11; cf. 7:14-17)
Whatever led to the Lamb to be as-slain, will result in the same for those who hold His testimony …
Having been introduced to the Lamb and to the Martyrs, we skip a few chapters to an interlude in chapter 12 wherein we meet the third and last of our dramatis personae. In the midst of a short incident regarding a woman with her Messiah-child, a retelling of the Gospel story, we come upon the menacing entrance of the Dragon.
And another sign appeared in heaven: and behold, a great red dragon, having seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. And his tail swept away a third of the stars of heaven, and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she gave birth he might devour her child.
The dragon, we learn, fails to succeed in devouring the child, and finds himself with his cohort of angels dramatically cast from heaven (cf. 12:10). In rage, he pursues the woman and her offspring, the church of Jesus Christ. Into this mission he co-opts and empowers a ‘Beast of the sea,’ whom we meet in chapter 13, and who, in turn, empowers a second Beast, coming out of the earth. Together they, and later-on the substitute for the second beast, the false prophet, form an unholy trinity-of-deceit given symbolic imprint by means of the infamous “mark of the Beast,” the 666 (Rev 13:17-18). The three dramatis personae thus duly introduced, allows us to proceed with some general observations.
The Text and our Times
The first is the most obvious; these are tumultuous times! NS Lyons gives eloquent expression to it in a short piece aptly titled The Upheaval:
We are living through an era of epochal change. At few times in history have so many currents of civilizational transformation coalesced and crashed into us at once, and at such speed. To say that we are being unmoored by massive technological, economic, environmental, geopolitical, and socio-cultural shifts would be to insufficiently limit our description of what is occurring. … in our bones many of us can feel the rumbling of the earthquake, and intuit the terrible truth: we are experiencing a tectonic upheaval, a rending, uprooting, cataclysmic shift from one era of history to another. And in such times there will, inevitably, be blood.
In seeking to negotiate such a moment, Christian instinct returns us to the Word of God, and in particular, to the Revelation. Not because it provides Braille-like clues to the initiated regarding futurology, but because its contextual prophetic-pastoral exhortation offers much to every follower of Jesus. To enter through the heavenly door with John is not a form of gnostic initiation, but an unveiling of God’s perspective on the world which runs counter to our own commonly-held assessment.
What then can we glean from John’s vision regarding the three dramatis personae and how they impress their form upon the shape of our world?
The Lamb triumphs, this we know from the Revelation. But the means of his triumph never fails to catch us by surprise. In the moment of his bitter weeping for the loss of the world, John hears the glorious news of the entrance of the powerful lion of the tribe of Judah; the hopeful one of prophetic expectation, and who comes with the sceptre of dominion and power in order to subdue all of the peoples of the earth. He must the one and he is here! But, when John turns to look and behold, he sees to his utter amazement and surprise, a lamb-as-slain. Not a slain lamb, nor a lamb as-if slain, but a lamb as slain; a living lamb bearing the mark of sacrificial death endured.
By itself, this is a remarkable image, but holding it in juxtaposition with the conquering image of a lion, is a unitary vision of awe and beauty combined. The symbol of power and royalty inextricably and eternally bound to an image of meekness and sacrifice. With John, the reader is incited to be forever reminded that the victory of the Lion is accomplished through the sacrifice of the Lamb. And not once after, in this book, is Jesus-in-power referred to by any other title other than the “Lamb as slain.” Later on, even as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, charging into battle victorious on a white horse, he is clothed in a robe dipped in blood—not the blood of the battle at his feet, but that of his own vicarious sacrifice (Rev 19:11-16).
The echo throughout is that of the terrible night of the Exodus, of the blood of an unblemished lamb taken up in the sufferings of the Servant of Isaiah 53, and finally fulfilled in the horrific execution of Jesus, in the cross of Christ. And so yes indeed, Jesus is the Son of Man from Daniel 7 who is thus worthy to ascend to the throne of the Ancient of Days—and to be stationed “in the midst of the throne” (Rev 5:6). This glorious picture of the Lamb-as-slain upends all our human categories of power and justice and stands unassailably as a fixed point of righteousness in a universe drunk on the illusion of its own confidence in determining human destiny.
Later on, when the seventh angel sounds the trumpet, loud voices in heaven are heard to shout “Now the kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever” (Rev 11:15). However else things might appear to us, this is God’s singular verdict on history; in the Lamb-as-slain His kingdom has been established, even as we await its final consummation.
As with the Lion-Lamb, we are called upon in similar paradoxical fashion to hold in unison both the suffering and security of the saints. Or, as Christians of old understood it, the church both militant and triumphant.
Above the section in Revelation 6:9-11, many translations insert headings such as “the witness of the martyrs,” which would suggest a mistake in tautology as the Greek word martyria from which we get our word “martyr,” simply means to witness—to give testimony. It is precisely because of the consequence of witnessing, that martyrdom achieves its primary meaning. In the opening lines of the Revelation in verse 5, Jesus is honoured as “the faithful witness, the first-born of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth,” wherein the word “witness” bears the technical meaning of truth-bearing within a Jewish law-court setting. Jesus stands in truth against all accusations aimed against him, his martyrdom in support of the truth he bears. In the same manner, all those whose lives are patterned upon the truthful testimony of Jesus, will likewise be patterned upon the truth-bearing suffering of Jesus. This is a given, and the strange discrepancy that Christianity in the West has managed to forego suffering for decades, is an historical anomaly. For the greater part of history, the cry of “How Long O Lord?” (Rev 5:10) so prevalent in the Psalms and registered here, has consistently rung out.
In vindication of their state of suffering, the saints are found located “underneath the altar” (Rev 6:9), a place symbolic of comfort, assurance, victory and intimacy by means close proximity to the Lamb himself. Furthermore, to be dressed in white not only speaks of purity, but of triumph and reward (cf. Rev 20:4). Again, juxtaposing alternate truths, John’s vision offers us a picture of reality we will not find elsewhere, a reality simultaneously sobering and comforting. As Paul reminds us in Romans 8:31-39, it is possible to be both unalterably secure in the love of God, yet considered “as sheep to be slaughtered”; to be considered both victorious and slain. “In this world,” Lewis reminds us, “everything is upside down. That which, if it could be prolonged here would be a truancy [festivity, dance and merriment], is most like that which in a better country is the End of ends. Joy is the serious business of Heaven.”
Let us turn finally in conclusion to the Beast of chapter 13 …
The identity of the Beast and the 6-6-6 is a conundrum of endless fascination and speculation to us, but probably not so for John’s original audience. In the first instance, every Jew will have understood the number or mark imprinted on the forehead or right hand as an allusion to the imprint of the Shema in Deuteronomy 6 (see esp. vv.8-9). The Shema functioned symbolically as an identity-marker of those devoted to Yahweh. By implication, the 6-6-6 therefore carries the symbolic freight of an anti-Shema, standing in stark contrast to those who are “sealed” (Rev 7:3) and who bear “the mark of the Father and the Lamb” on their foreheads (Rev 14:1).
In the second instance, the familiar prevalence of Hebrew Numerics readily saw the number translating into either “Rome” or “Nero Caesar” or both, and given its noted imperfection as a number—6-6-6 is not 7-7-7 (which would indicate a perfect number)—it no doubt served contextually to refer to the unholy trinity of the Dragon, the Beast of the sea and the Beast of the land. In John’s day, it served as the sounding of an obvious and clear warning that it is none other than Satan who stands behind the Empire, and that it is the Empire that grants authority to its rulers and provincial governors to stand in service of Satan’s purposes.
What John’s vision is calling for, is an awakening amongst God’s people in Asia Minor that Christians are those who bear the mark of Christ in the midst of a world that bears the mark of the Beast. Following Nero, under Domitian, the cult of emperor worship gained rapid ascendency, and even though not ubiquitous across the provinces, persecution quickly broke out against the church. John’s hearers would soon find themselves brought into submission under these new powers, and would increasingly struggle to maintain their normal lives by virtue of exclusion from the marketplace, and alienation in civil society—this is the practical nature of John’s prophetic warning.
Live not by Lies nor by Fear
Let us be frank, the same situation applies to the church today. Though the Dragon has been expelled from the heavenlies and is defeated, he is not yet destroyed (which happens eventually, cf. Rev 19:20-21; 20:10), and therefore rages against the church of Jesus Christ. The church faces today, as it did in John’s day, an enemy defeated yet enraged, and we are called to the certainty of his final demise despite current circumstances suggesting the contrary.
One thing is certain though, the Dragon’s strategy has been laid bare by means of John’s Revelation. His are the ways of lies and deceit, particularly by means of the powers granted to the Beast and Beast/false prophet. How telling is this truth in relation to our own unexamined relationship with authority, government and state? In every age the power of the Dragon and the Beast has manifested in the form of treachery and deception by means of a parody of goodness—even in the form of a parody of the Christ. In Revelation 13:3 we learn of the Beast’s fatally severed head, but also of his unexpected “healing”—to which there are some curious historical back stories in the form of rumours concerning a “resurrected” Nero. And though the salvation on offer by the Beast is nothing but sham salvation and false hope, the agents of the Beast are somehow convinced of its actual power. They marvel at his “wizardry” (cf. Rev 18:21, Gk. pharmakeia). In that light, note this incisive comment by CS Lewis:
Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron’s cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
As I have reflected on this statement by Lewis several times over the past year, it seems to me that we have arrived at the cusp of confronting tyrannies we have not faced in a long time. It is possible that our generation will have the unenviable fortune of peering into corners of John’s vision previous generations were spared of having to behold. Whichever way, and however we choose to identify the Beast of Revelation for our times—and there are several candidates—the one thing we will have to come to grips with is the following. In his book Live not by Lies, Rod Dreher writes:
Relatively few contemporary Christians are prepared to suffer for the faith, because the therapeutic society that has formed them denies the purpose of suffering in the first place, and the idea of bearing pain for the sake of truth seems ridiculous.
Regardless of how we read and thus “heed” the words of John, the moment is upon us, or very nearly upon us, in which we will have to take our suffering-stand in the Lamb-as-slain, who is also the Lion of Judah.
First Concluding Postscript
It is slowly becoming clear that the current pandemic we find ourselves in will be around for a good few years and that it will indeed bring about a “great reset” of a kind we do not yet know, though some contours are becoming apparent even as they are being drawn. Life in the midst of it will take on a paradoxical shape reflecting the dramatis personae above. Christ is and will be the reigning King over all, yet the mantle of his rule will be sacrificial love, a bloodied robe—he is the warrior Lamb-as-slain. Christ’s people will live as sheep-to-be-slaughtered, yet hidden under the altar in the very presence of their King and clothed in victory. The church of Christ has always been both militant—we too are warriors of the Messiah (cf. Psalm 110:3)—and triumphant. And the Dragon? Though defeated and destined to ultimate destruction, he will continue to wreak havoc in his rage against the servants of Christ. Moreover, his ploy of deceit by means of the Beast—Rome at the time of John, perhaps several world powers today—and the false prophet in service, will deceive the nations. In this setting, the “synagogue of Satan” (Rev 2:9; 3:9) in its aid of evil against those who appear to be their kin, will be most destructive. “He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches” (Rev 2:7,11,17,29; 3:6,13,22).
Second Concluding Postscript
I have watched in utter dismay as the evangelical church capitulated to statism, safetyism and virtue-signalling en masse, relinquishing the keys of Christ in acts of surrender never seen in the history of the church since the apostles. The level of betrayal and collusion of those in ‘spiritual power’ with secular government is mirrored only by the trial of our Lord himself, and by all means electronically and otherwise the “Son-of-God-in-power” (cf. Rom 1:4) has been brought low and crowned supremely “son-of-God-in-private.” The injunction of Hebrews 10:25 to “not forsake meeting together,” written for a time such as this, is roundly ignored, and were it not for the knowledge that “God himself knows who are his” (2 Tim 2:19), one would be tempted to despair. But take heart, courage is on offer to those “who will not shrink back to destruction, but who have faith to the preserving of the soul” (Heb 10:36-39). “Come Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).