The intersection between faith and science has been strained by many a conflicting divide over the years, as was my own journey born out of the 'take it literally' camp of Bible teaching which lead me as a naive, hair permed youth pastor, getting evicted from lessons teaching creationism along with my good friend - and former student at the school, Jonathan.
But a lot has changed over the past (I hesitate to write this next bit) three decades!
Today's world is very different to what it was when I was doing theology in the lecture room all those years ago and the gap between faith and science has narrowed by quite some margin. So when today, the 2020 Templeton Prize Laureate (The Templeton Prize honors individuals who harness the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s purpose within it.) was handed to Francis Collins the reality of just how far things have progressed is clear.
Collins work is best known for his ground breaking achievement on the human genome and today, with scientists from around the world he is helping to drive the race behind a vaccine and the therapies for the treatment of Covid 19. In his prepared statement of the Templeton Prize he writes:
Why is there something instead of nothing? Is there a God? Does she or he care about me? What is the basis of morality? What is love? What is the meaning of life? Why is there so much suffering in this world? What happens after we die?
Those are profound questions. Yet I paid little attention to them during my first quarter-century on this planet. I was a committed materialist who found little use for anything that could not be addressed by scientific experimentation. But when I transitioned from quantum mechanics to medical school, I found these questions hard to ignore while sitting next to the beds of the sick and dying, and science wasn’t much use in tackling them. People of faith seemed to claim wisdom in that domain, but I assumed those insights were based on superstition and fundamental misunderstanding of nature. Seeking to dismiss the faith perspective, I was stunned to discover a rich vein of philosophical and theological thinking. Atheism, the denial of the possibility of anything that science couldn’t measure, emerged as the most irrational and impoverished worldview. And to my amazement, pointers to a Creator began to appear in all sorts of places, even including scientific observations about the universe. Most importantly, the person of Jesus emerged as the most profound truth-teller I had ever encountered, and called on me to make a decision about my own belief.
Collins decision about his own belief has been the constant driver of his life over many decades leading him to write 'The Language of God' in 2007 in which he puts forward his case for theistic evolution. He went onto to set up the organisation BioLogos which is the go to site for many of the world's top theologians and pastors such as John Ortberg, Tim Keller and N.T. Wright. The fact that Alpha international have now drawn the work of Collins into their course is testament to how much has changed in such a short time.
If you've not challenged your own ideas around origins in sometime; if you've dismissed faith because of science, or if you've got kids who are drifting away from faith because they can't reconcile it with the modern world, you deserve it to both yourself and them to check out the work of Collins - this sharp minded, humble hearted man with the Rolls Royce brain has caused quite a stir which is far from over yet.
You find further information about the Templeton Prize here - https://www.templetonprize.org/
Francis Collins work and collaboration at Bio Logos can be viewed here - https://biologos.org/
What is it about songs that at certain times the words pop into your head and you start singing them? Which is exactly what happened last week when I found myself humming the line from Elton John's song - Sorry, seems to be the hardest word. 'It's sad, so sad. It's a sad, sad situation and it's getting more and more absurd.' I wasn't sure whether to change the word 'sad' to 'mad' but in truth they both feel fitting in equal measure.
I first noticed an article about Covid-19 in mid-December last year - it was about the sixth article as I glanced down and subconsciously wondered if it would grow as a story or fall away. Never would I have thought we would get to where we are today. Now the Coronavirus has crashed on our shores like an unwelcome tsunami and we are left in lock down to ponder on this unprecedented moment in our history with the simple question: What on earth is happening?
I'm not easily given to conspiracy theories - I mean I am old enough to have lived through the millennium bug. I'm a Pastor and so my default position is to start from the simple and build up. Trust people, unless you are shown the reason not to; Work from the premise that original goodness precedes original sin; Understand that human nature is the nature of what it means to be human and so what you find in your own heart is what will be revealed in the hearts of others - save for the extent to which life has been shaped by our childhood. It's a general rule of thumb - but one that's stood me in good stead over the years. Oh, and of course in crisis we all revert to type - which can be worrying.
So, when the internet started to churn out its theories around the pandemic I treated them with a 'healthy' degree a caution. Prophecy suddenly pops out of nowhere. People ask whether these are the End Times. Presumptions are made around the judgement of God. Theories surface that all of this is a master plan on part of China in its steps to world domination. I mean - what else are we to do with our time? Stay at home - and help save lives is the answer.
Bill Gates was speaking about a global pandemic some years back with the overarching message - its' just a matter of time. So, I guess you could slip in a prophecy about it with a good chance of accuracy. Anyhow, that's not the point of my writing. Not many of us can change the global situation - well - we can stay home and help save lives - and that matters. But otherwise our level of influence is more restricted - and when you look at the decisions which need to me made, we are perhaps grateful for the fact that such weight doesn't rest on our shoulders. And let's pray for those on whom it does rest.
For Christians we are journeying through lent, a time of inner reflection, of letting go and stripping away. One might conclude that the world is currently on the same journey. What are we left with when we deny ourselves - or indeed, find ourselves denied? It can be a scary road to take since the whole of society is built around our need to consume.
In an article for Time Magazine this week, Professor N.T. Wright was asked to address this exact issue. In the piece, titled, Christianity Offers No Answers About the Coronavirus. It's Not Supposed To, I discovered he returned to a familiar theme - that of lament, suffering and the mystery of redemption. He writes, 'Lament is what happens when people ask, “Why?” and don’t get an answer. It’s where we get to when we move beyond our self-centred worry about our sins and failings and look more broadly at the suffering of the world.' He goes on, 'It’s bad enough facing a pandemic in New York City or London. What about a crowded refugee camp on a Greek island? What about Gaza? Or South Sudan?' It is rare in the West that we live though a time that is outside our control or face a challenge that money cannot fix. We may have faced this personally of course - divorce, bankruptcy, death, abuse - all of these bring a sense of utter terror and loss - but it doesn't impact the collective psyche of the nation. That's what war does - it's what this pandemic has the potential to do. So, lament at a time of national emergency is not an unusual response even when we don't know why. In fact, the deeper traditions of the Christian faith and indeed the Hebrew scriptures teach us that lament is gift we receive in response to letting go. It takes us deeper to the heart of things - our sense of loss becomes the gateway to a different type of comfort.
Wright continues, 'The point of lament, woven thus into the fabric of the biblical tradition, is not just that it’s an outlet for our frustration, sorrow, loneliness and sheer inability to understand what is happening or why. The mystery of the biblical story is that God also laments. Some Christians like to think of God as above all that, knowing everything, in charge of everything, calm and unaffected by the troubles in his world. That’s not the picture we get in the Bible.' Lament in fact, as taught through the tradition of lent is not about loss as much as it is about re calibration- of building life around what matters.
I mean what if the virus took God by surprise too? Or what if he doesn't control things in the way we think of control? And what if God's actions in the world are not born out of power but out of love? Perhaps these thoughts are difficult to grasp but is it a more biblical approach? What if God does not use a wand to realign the pain of the world - but instead uses a cross? And if so, what does that type of redemption look like and how does it flow through the world? Of Jesus himself, the Bible says: 'Now that we know what we have—Jesus, this great High Priest with ready access to God—let’s not let it slip through our fingers. We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin. So let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help. (Hebrews 4:14-16 from the Message)'
I fear that looking for answers in a time of crisis is something of a meaningless pursuit. It's difficult because we can see ambiguity as a lack of faith and a disruption to hope. We like to think in a linear way and see faith more like a train journey than a wandering. The problem is what happens when we get derailed and we have to navigate our way back home? I have discovered God to be more a travelling companion and guide than I have train driver. During a season of lament, I suggest we allow our actions to forge in us who are becoming rather than what we are achieving. All of a sudden people seem to have time to talk; acts of heroism are borne of unsung heroes rather than trite celebrity; a bag of shopping thoughtfully delivered is a demonstration of real love. And perhaps we can get to the place where speculation around what is happening and why is not as important as who I am becoming and for whom. In closing the words of Eric Liddell come to mind, 'Circumstances may appear to wreck our lives and God's plans. But God is not helpless among the ruins.' And maybe that is the journey of lament - the one of which lent speaks and maybe this is the greatest sense of hope each of us can take from the current madness all around us.
If you didn't get chance to listen in full to the latest press briefing from the government on Thursday 12 March 2020 and you wonder what is happening - or not - especially when we look at other countries across Europe - then you probably ought to if only to be saved from sound bites which don't show the full picture (You can listen to it here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_UdqF_R1ziE&t=1511s). I've been trying to make sense of this in my own limited way and then came across a series to tweets by Professor Ian Donald (@iandonald_psych) which I found very helpful.
I'm not saying you should agree with it - but we owe it to ourselves to at least understand the strategic rationale behind it and his tweets are extremely informative in this regard and for that reason I wanted to share them.
15 Tweets by Professor Ian Donald. Psychologist: Social, & Environmental research, & behavioural factors in Anti-Microbial Resistance. Emeritus Professor, University of Liverpool.
1. The govt strategy on #Coronavirus is more refined than those used in other countries and potentially very effective. But it is also riskier and based on a number of assumptions. They need to be correct, and the measures they introduce need to work when they are supposed to.
2. This all assumes I'm correct in what I think the govt are doing and why. I could be wrong - and wouldn't be surprised. But it looks to me like. . .
3. A UK starting assumption is that a high number of the population will inevitably get infected whatever is done – up to 80%. As you can’t stop it, so it is best to manage it.
There are limited health resources so the aim is to manage the flow of the seriously ill to these.
4. The Italian model the aims to stop infection. The UKs wants infection BUT of particular categories of people. The aim of the UK is to have as many lower risk people infected as possible. Immune people cannot infect others; the more there are the lower the risk of infection
5. That's herd immunity.
Based on this idea, at the moment the govt wants people to get infected, up until hospitals begin to reach capacity. At that they want to reduce, but not stop infection rate. Ideally they balance it so the numbers entering hospital = the number leaving.
6. That balance is the big risk.
All the time people are being treated, other mildly ill people are recovering and the population grows a higher percent of immune people who can’t infect. They can also return to work and keep things going normally - and go to the pubs.
7.The risk is being able to accurately manage infection flow relative to health case resources. Data on infection rates needs to be accurate, the measures they introduce need to work and at the time they want them to and to the degree they want, or the system is overwhelmed.
8. Schools: Kids generally won’t get very ill, so the govt can use them as a tool to infect others when you want to increase infection. When you need to slow infection, that tap can be turned off – at that point they close the schools. Politically risky for them to say this.
9. The same for large scale events - stop them when you want to slow infection rates; turn another tap off. This means schools etc are closed for a shorter period and disruption generally is therefore for a shorter period, AND with a growing immune population. This is sustainable
10. After a while most of the population is immune, the seriously ill have all received treatment and the country is resistant. The more vulnerable are then less at risk. This is the end state the govt is aiming for and could achieve.
11. BUT a key issue during this process is protection of those for whom the virus is fatal. It's not clear the full measures there are to protect those people. It assumes they can measure infection, that their behavioural expectations are met - people do what they think they will
12. The Italian (and others) strategy is to stop as much infection as possible - or all infection. This is appealing, but then what? The restrictions are not sustainable for months. So the will need to be relaxed. But that will lead to reemergence of infections.
13. Then rates will then start to climb again. So they will have to reintroduce the restrictions each time infection rates rise. That is not a sustainable model and takes much longer to achieve the goal of a largely immune population with low risk of infection of the vulnerable
14. As the government tries to achieve equilibrium between hospitalisations and infections, more interventions will appear. It's perhaps why there are at the moment few public information films on staying at home. They are treading a tight path, but possibly a sensible one.
15. This is probably the best strategy, but they should explain it more clearly. It relies on a lot of assumptions, so it would be good to know what they are - especially behavioural. Most encouraging, it's way too clever for #BorisJohnson to have had any role in developing.
According to Bill Gates, 'In the past week, COVID-19 has started to behave a lot like the once-in-a-century pathogen we’ve been worried about. I hope it’s not that bad, but we should assume that it will be until we know otherwise.' For sure we're all now acting like it is and our conversations are freaking us out. The disruption it creates and the fear it instils is outside our normal experience in the West and is unprecedented in the lifetime of many of us. So what are we to do?
Here are few thoughts as we journey together through unchartered waters. They are not in any particular order - and neither are they exhaustive but they are the things that are running through my mind at the moment.
Some spiritual stuff...
Christ’s not just for Christmas - he’s also for crisis. (And other things too, of course but let’s stay on track). Jesus has come to us so we can draw close to him. If you’re a person of faith this matters. So how can you dig deeper into your faith at this time and how can it help you and others? A few thoughts ....
Take time to connect with God and pay attention to your own spirituality. Consider the following as pathways to help with this.
If you are unsure then here’s a few ideas...
And finally for now, Jo came across these comments recently, ‘Listen to the medical experts and take appropriate measures (wash your hands etc). But we need to replace our fear with faith and pray for our nation, that God would protect us. Philippians 4 reminds us: 'Don't worry anything and pray about everything’ Our God is bigger than the coronavirus.
So they are some of my thoughts – what helpful articles, scriptures, links etc have you found – please let me know in the comments below.
The greatest call for a follower of Jesus is faithfulness and Revelation sets the context for what this means. When faced with hardship, compromise, persecution and martyrdom we are called to live as a faithful witness of Jesus.
This is the issue that John's hearers faced. Dominated by the opposing might of the Empire they felt deeply the pressure to conform. In fact, they felt the pressure of the ‘beast of the sea’ all too strongly in their church communities. This coupled with the fact that the ‘beast of the land’ was trying to destroy them it is clear the pressure they were under, as the letter to Smyrna shows: 'I know your afflictions and your poverty – yet you are rich! I know about the slander of those who say they are Jews and are not, but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. I tell you, the devil will put some of you in prison to test you, and you will suffer persecution for ten days. Be faithful, even to the point of death, and I will give you life as your victor’s crown.' (Revelation 2:9-10).
Stepping into Revelation brings you into a world of imagery and metaphor. Its purpose is to reveal that the visible realm is only part of the truth; another world exists alongside this one and John's intention is to allow his readers to see it, so they understand what is happening. There's a war going on - and the more you understand the better equipped you will be. As C.S. Lewis said, ‘There is no neutral ground in the universe. Every square inch, every split second is claimed by God, and counterclaimed by Satan.’ Our response? Faithfulness. Or as the Apostle Paul said, ’Therefore put on the full armour of God, so that when the day of evil comes, you may be able to stand your ground, and after you have done everything, to stand.' (Ephesians 6:13).
NT Wright says: 'As the early Christian movement grew, and developed momentum, further questions emerged. What was God doing now? What were his plans for the little churches dotted around the Mediterranean world? Where was it all going? In particular, why was God allowing followers of Jesus to suffer persecution? What line should they take when faced with the fastest growing ‘religion’ of the time, namely the worship of Caesar, the Roman emperor? Should they resist?’
It's in helping the believers to know what to do that chapters 12 to 14 of Revelation come into play. They are best seen as the cosmic struggle and understanding some of the symbolism behind the chapters brings to light this intention. (If you unfamiliar with these chapters it would be good at this point to read them before continuing).
'The dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name.' (Revelation 13:1).
The dragon is enraged because it's not been able to destroy the child at the point of birth: 'The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born.' (Revelation 12:4).
The dragon then turns its anger towards the off spring of the child. The build up to this scene had started earlier in Chapter 12:1 when we read:
'A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. 2 She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth.'
The mother is seen to be a symbol of Eve, the mother of all living, or Israel the Messianic line of Christ or indeed, Mary herself. Whichever one, or indeed all these images, set the drama for a big showdown as the dragon comes onto the scene: ‘An enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its head.' (12:3). But the child is protected and 'snatched up to God and to his throne.' (12:5).
And the dragon is thrown out of heaven and begins his pursuit of the child's offspring.
‘When the dragon saw that he had been hurled to the earth, he pursued the woman who had given birth to the male child. 14 The woman was given the two wings of a great eagle, so that she might fly to the place prepared for her in the wilderness, where she would be taken care of for a time, times and half a time, out of the snake’s reach. 15 Then from his mouth the snake spewed water like a river, to overtake the woman and sweep her away with the torrent. 16 But the earth helped the woman by opening its mouth and swallowing the river that the dragon had spewed out of his mouth. 17 Then the dragon was enraged at the woman and went off to wage war against the rest of her offspring – those who keep God’s commands and hold fast their testimony about Jesus.’ (12:13-17).
And the dragon stood on the shore of the sea to wait for the beasts to arrive.
Peterson writes, ‘He [the dragon] recruits help from the underworld, two beasts, one out of the sea, the other out of the earth, to execute his malign will within the believing community, these people whom God commands and saves. St John’s scripture reading congregations have no trouble recognising the animals; the beasts are Leviathan and Behemoth portrayed in God’s whirlwind speech to Job as the ultimate in ferocity (see Job 40-41), but also known to be crushed and disposed of, no longer any threat to God’s rule.’
'And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. It had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on its horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. 2 The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority. 3 One of the heads of the beast seemed to have had a fatal wound, but the fatal wound had been healed. The whole world was filled with wonder and followed the beast. 4 People worshipped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshipped the beast and asked, ‘Who is like the beast? Who can wage war against it?’ (Revelation 13:1-4).
The beast is powerful, and, 'given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise its authority for forty-two months. 6 It opened its mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling-place and those who live in heaven. 7 It was given power to wage war against God’s holy people and to conquer them. And it was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. 8 All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast – all whose names have not been written in the Lamb’s book of life, the Lamb who was slain from the creation of the world.' (13:5-8).
And so, from the sea he comes to make war against the people of God, which he does - and many of them are killed - martyred for the cause of Christ - and this is John's urgency.
'This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of God’s people.' (13:10).
But the sea beast is not alone.
'Then I saw a second beast, coming out of the earth. It had two horns like a lamb, but it spoke like a dragon. 12 It exercised all the authority of the first beast on its behalf and made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast, whose fatal wound had been healed. 13 And it performed great signs, even causing fire to come down from heaven to the earth in full view of the people. 14 Because of the signs it was given power to perform on behalf of the first beast, it deceived the inhabitants of the earth. It ordered them to set up an image in honour of the beast who was wounded by the sword and yet lived. 15 The second beast was given power to give breath to the image of the first beast, so that the image could speak and cause all who refused to worship the image to be killed. 16 It also forced all people, great and small, rich and poor, free and slave, to receive a mark on their right hands or on their foreheads, 17 so that they could not buy or sell unless they had the mark, which is the name of the beast or the number of its name' (13:11-16)
Most people worship the sea beast and receive his mark and are allowed to trade - others refuse and as a result are either conquered or captured.
What Does This Mean?
So, what does all of this represent for these seven churches situated on the edge of Roman Empire?
The image of the Sea Beast is drawn from Daniel 7
‘2 Daniel said: ‘In my vision at night I looked, and there before me were the four winds of heaven churning up the great sea. 3 Four great beasts, each different from the others, came up out of the sea. 4 ‘The first was like a lion, and it had the wings of an eagle. I watched until its wings were torn off and it was lifted from the ground so that it stood on two feet like a human being, and the mind of a human was given to it. 5 ‘And there before me was a second beast, which looked like a bear. It was raised up on one of its sides, and it had three ribs in its mouth between its teeth. It was told, “Get up and eat your fill of flesh!” 6 ‘After that, I looked, and there before me was another beast, one that looked like a leopard. And on its back it had four wings like those of a bird. This beast had four heads, and it was given authority to rule. 7 ‘After that, in my vision at night I looked, and there before me was a fourth beast – terrifying and frightening and very powerful. It had large iron teeth; it crushed and devoured its victims and trampled underfoot whatever was left. It was different from all the former beasts, and it had ten horns.’ (Daniel 7:2-7).
So, Daniel sees this 4 beast sequence which immediately gets defeated by the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man. (Daniel 7:8-14). These beasts are now combined together in John's apocalypse.
Again, we go back to Peterson, ‘Leviathan and Behemoth were awesome, but there is also an unmistakeable touch of the ludicrous in John’s description. The sea beast is a patchwork job, assembled from left over parts of leopard, bear and lion. The land beast is a fake lamb, a clumsy counterfeit of the magnificent true Lamb (Revelation 5:6, 7:17). John allows for their capacity to strike terror still, but he also shows them as considerably shop worn. The old beasts have been around too long and are starting to lose their stuffing.’
In Daniel’s vision the lion represents Babylon, the bear, Persia and the leopard with four heads is Greece which splits into four after the death of Alexandra the Great. The fourth beast, with iron teeth and ten horns is Rome.
In John’s vision, he takes those images and applies it to his day by saying what we have now is a terrible fusion of the all the other world empires expressed in this one beast - Rome. It is the amalgamation of all the empires that have threatened God's people in the past that now finds new power in the form of the present Empire.
For John’s first audience, the allusion to Roman imperial power in the beast from the sea is made clear by the continuity of the character of the dragon, which connects this chapter with the Python–Leto myth in Revelation 12. It is also confirmed by the close links between this passage and Daniel 7, where the beasts are symbolic of kingdoms (Dan. 7:23). But the symbolic description and the combining of Daniel’s four beasts into one have a further effect for subsequent audiences. Rather than focus on the fourth beast alone, John draws on the characteristic of all the beast-empires, as if to say, ‘This is the threat of Roman imperial power – but it is actually the threat of any human empire which claims what only God can claim.’
For them the beast was Rome - for us, for you and me - the beast is something else, but its' still coming up out of the sea - from the chaos to cause havoc on the people of God.
The beast out of the land - the one who speaks and works miracles on behalf of the beast of the sea we understand as a Jewish or Pagan beast that represents religious power in support of imperial power. It lines up with imperial power to say: You should worship the beast. And so, religion and empire come together in a horrible fusion that attacks the church. As Ian Paul writes, ‘If the image of the first beast evoked the power of imperial Rome for John’s audience, then the image of a beast coming out of the land (or ‘earth’) would evoke the local power structures in Asia on which Rome depended for the exercise of its rule, and which in turn benefited from Roman rule in the consolidation of their own power'.
Paul continues, ‘The emphasis appears to be that this second beast looks harmless enough as a parody of the lamb on the throne, but in fact (like the beast from the sea) shows its real character by speaking like a dragon. It is a ‘wolf in sheep’s clothing’ (Matt. 7:15).
The beasts from the sea and earth are the images by which John shows us the satan, covertly at work in these large areas of government and religion. John is lifting the lid for his readers showing them what is really taking place. ‘With the sea beast the dragon will frighten us into disobedience (‘make war on the saints and conquer them.’ [Rev 13:7]); with the land beast he will deceive us into illusion (‘deceives those who dwell on earth’ [Rev 13:14]).
The dragon - with this unholy trinity has come to wage war on the saints - and this, 'calls for endurance and faithfulness on the part of God's people.' (13:10).
If Revelation 13 shows the reality of persecution that was coming to the Church over the next two centuries, Revelation 14 shows the victory on the other side. It shows how the story ends for the persecuted Church of Christ.
Chapter 13 - the people are Captured / Conquered / Killed
Chapter 14 - the people are Redeemed / Rested / Reaped
We can endure the former - because we have seen the latter.
Endurance and faithfulness is the call to the church as Revelation remind us, ‘This calls for patient endurance on the part of the people of God who keep his commands and remain faithful to Jesus.' (Revelation 14:12).
For the Church today what we are faced with is the task of discernment. In what way does this evil manifest in our midst, and particularly where do we see empire in collusion with religion forming an unholy alliance against the people of God? As Paul notes, 'For later hearers and readers, the challenge is to discern where similar patterns of authority are at work and – knowing that we too are living in the forty-two months or 1,260 days or three and a half years, when we too will know both suffering and victory, when we too are in a time for testimony and patient endurance – to make hard decisions about our own loyalty and faith.'
So where does our faith and loyalty lie? What does it look like to live as a faithful witness for Jesus?
The Early Church understood that living for Jesus things wouldn’t always be easy, as the Apostles reminded them in the book of Acts. ‘Then they returned to Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, 22 strengthening the disciples and encouraging them to remain true to the faith. ‘We must go through many hardships to enter the kingdom of God,’ they said.’ (Acts 14:22).
For us today our faithfulness to Jesus can be seen as expressed in the following ways
Faithful In The Time We Live
We each have to serve as faithful witnesses for Jesus in our own time and generation. This means looking what shape our witness takes as we go about living our life on a day by basis. Living faithfully means living consistently – it’s not about waiting for that big moment, when everything aligns and we have the perfect opportunity to share our faith. Rather it’s about each of us showing faithfulness in our relationships, actions and attitudes.
When we go to the shops, out to the pub, clocking on at work – these are the places where faithfulness to Jesus is shown. Faithfulness to Jesus is living the same in private was we do in public – faithfulness to him is not about wearing our Sunday best – but about being true to Christ each day of the week. Our faithfulness to Jesus is a lifestyle choice.
Faithful with The Talents We Have Been Given
The second area where we can show ourselves faithful is with the talents we have been given. If we look at our talents as simply our own provision – to make our life better, more successful then we are not showing faithfulness in what we have been given. Our gifts are exactly that gifts that are given to be used as a blessing to others.
We can recall the story of the talents as told by Jesus. The two who were blessed were the ones who took their talents and put the to use for the master. The one who was rebuked was the one who did nothing – he just took the talents and buried them in the ground.
As Jesus said, ‘To he who is given much, from him much is required. We need to show faithfulness with what we’ve been given.
Faithful to The Body of Christ
Finally, we need to show ourselves faithful the body of Christ – the church. Jesus is building his church and we are called as ‘Co-workers together with him.’ We have a responsibility to show faithfulness to the Body – as Paul writes: ‘Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many.’ (1 Corinthians 12:12-15). After he has finished explaining how each of us together forms what the body is, he writes: ‘Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.’ (1 Corinthians 12:27).
Serving and living faithfully for Jesus is our highest call and most important task. This was the charge laid by John – the central message of his Apocalypse. What we do in the face of opposition and persecution; how we live in times of plenty and abundance all matters to God. It matters not only what we have – but also the means by which we received it. Faithfulness is not only about what happens on the surface – it’s about what happens beneath the surface. John is keen for his hearers to know this – keen that they see that what appears is not the total of all that there is. We must be aware of the Schemer, the one who seeks to rob, steel, kill and destroy, who appears as an enormous dragon in his vision but can also masquerade as an angel of light somewhere else. Faithfulness is the key - we know this deeply and fully from our own life and relationships, we know it clearly from the Apocalypse. There is great promise in faithfulness – great reward, as the parable of the Talents reminds us: ‘“His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness!’ (Matthew 25:23).
‘Where there is no vision, the people perish’ , says the proverb, a verse from the ancient Wisdom Literature that precedes the Apocalypse by many Centuries and sets well the tone for our ongoing journey into the book of Revelation. And for the believers of the first century walking through the city of Ephesus, the home of the first Christian community to receive a letter in John’s apocalypse, the importance of vision could hardly be overstated.
As the power of the Empire weighed heavily on their shoulders they were in danger of drift. Not that it was all bad, in fact there is much praise for this young congregation: ‘I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary (Revelation 2:2-3).’ But it was the sentence at the end of the letter which grabs our attention: ‘Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first (Revelation 2:4-5).’ The believers were in a danger of missing the most important thing.
As a city Ephesus was situated on the far reaches of the Empire and sat strategically as a trading route between East and West. It was a city of commerce – a trading centre between two cultures and the Agora was the ‘marketplace’ where the business of buying and selling happened. Entrance to the Agora was by way of an acknowledgement to the Caesar as part of the Imperial Cult. The offering of incense was said to allow for a mark (possibly of ink) to be put on the hand of the person. It was this mark that allowed people to participate in the free trade of the Agora – and so, the question faced by the Christians was: Should they receive the mark of the beast?
For life to stay on course, we need vision and this is especially true when we are under pressure and without it we have the propensity to drift. We can drift in the face of temptation, testing, trials and persecutions. The people of God were being tested – they needed to live with vision and this is what Revelation 4 and 5 provides.
We all need a centring vision from which everything else gets its frame of reference. The ability to stay focused, to keep on track, to resist the pressures around you and to keep the main thing the main thing – that’s what these chapters offer. Whenever we take our eyes off Jesus, we start to lose faith as we are distracted from our devotion to the Alpha and Omega. If we fail to see Jesus as both the source of life - Alpha, and the culmination of life - Omega, then the priorities between these two realities can easily go off track.
The vision unfolds in this way, ‘After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this (Revelation 4:1).’
The invitation is to come up here. We need to change our position and our perspective if we are to see what God has for us. For John this meant walking through the door that had been opened to him. The doorway leads to the reality of what lies not only at the heart of the vision but is also the pinnacle of creation. All of John’s testing, trials and isolation (he’s incarcerated on Patmos as a result of following Jesus) is about to find a new centring reality - his life is to be built around this.
The imagery that follows is as dramatic as it is beautiful. A rainbow that shines like an emerald encircles a throne which is surrounded by twenty-four other thrones on which are sitting elders. Already we know that who or whatever is at the centre of this scene is of greatest importance - we are being led into a throne room - a place from which everything else in life, and indeed the universe should take its frame of reference.
Not only is this so, but for the hearers of the first century something else is at work. John’s vision is not only pointing to the majesty of God, but it is also subverting the power of Empire through drawing a comparison between the true power that’s been unleashed in the world which is not the dominance of the Empire, but rather the sacrifice of the Lamb. Enter Domitian.
Domitian was the 9th of the Caesar’s and notably one of the cruellest. He created Ephesus as the centre of Imperial Cult worship and established the Domitian Games – a spectacle that drew crowds of up to 80,000 people and he reigned during the time of John. In fact, some of have surmised it may have been Domitian who removed this irritant of a pastor prophet to the isle of Patmos.
Domitian reigned between 81 A.D. to 96 A.D. His mission, as well as ruling the Empire with efficiency was to restate the Imperial Cult which had lost some of the influence previously established under Augustus. He’s said to have demanded to go by the title: ‘My Lord and My God.’ And when writing to his subjects he would get his officials to address letters: ‘Our Lord and God commands you…’
It’s said that wherever he went there was a choir of 24 singers chanting: ‘Our Lord and our God you are worthy to receive honour, glory and power.’
From the few fragments of Domitian in the historical accounts, you get further glimpses of how ruthless he was. One records his attendance at a Gladiatorial event where one of the spectators heckled a gladiator in the ring. Domitian simply pointed out the man and instructed he be thrown into the ring and fed to the wild animals. A further account recalls one of the priests who offended him, so he instructed she be buried alive.
On one of the statues of Domitian, he can be seen holding a scroll in his hand. The scroll was key to ruling in the Empire. It contained writing on both sides of all the divine names of the Caesar. It was symbolic of the fact that he was the only person who was worthy to open the scroll and to break the seal.
The Domitian Games
The Domitian Games were famous for drawing massive crowds of people. They would begin with the leaders of the various provinces coming before him – he would then address the leaders of those provinces, thus: ‘To you the leader of … I have this for you, and I have this against you.’ The address would conclude with the charge that if they didn’t deal with the issues pointed out then he would come and wipe them out.
Worship would follow where the priests and spectators gathered were dressed in white. The priests would wear crowns of gold on their heads and on the front of the crowns would be written the divine titles of Domitian – a way of reminding everyone who he was as worship ascended from the gathered throng. The words would be chanted: ‘Great are you, our Lord and God, Worthy are you to receive honour and power and glory. Worthy are you Lord of the earth, to inherit the Kingdom. Lord of Lord, highest of high, Lord of the earth, God of all things. Lord God and Saviour for eternity.’
A four-horse race would be one of the highlights of the games where each horse was a different colour. At the end of the games after further contests and gladiatorial competitions a man would come out into the arena to clean all the dead bodies and animals out of the ring. The one who headed this role wore a mask of a classic hero called, Hades.
This was Domitian and this was his Empire. The historian Seutonius wrote: ‘He (Domitian) loved to hear “Hail to the Lord.”’
Subverting the Empire?
Is this John adopting the imagery of his day, taking it and subverting what is around him to declare there is someone greater than Caesar to whom we offer our allegiance? He is walking a dangerous path. But the imagery of the Empire is not the only picture in John’s mind, as the vision unfolds the ancient apocalyptic language of the ancient Jews also plays its part in forging a centring vision for the people of God.
‘In the centre, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stop saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” (Revelation 4:6-9).’
The seer (John) is shown the four living creatures of a lion, ox, man and eagle, reminiscent of Ezekiel’s vision which merges with Isaiah’s vision of chapter six as a circle is created within a circle with the throne in the middle. And perhaps this is the point – a circle within a circle whereby we are continually drawn back to what lies at the heart of it.
John’s vision draws heavily from the Prophets as if to remind God’s people who they are. For again, when we face trouble it’s easy for us to lose perspective – even to forget who we are. It’s a majestic vision of the Divine which keeps us on track. We may not live with the fear of persecution, but we all know about the temptation to put other things before God. The twin track message of the prophets – idolatry on the one hand, and injustice on the other are as real today as they’ve always been and we need to heed the invitation to ‘Come up here’ if we are to resist in the face of fear, apathy or deceit. But the vision isn’t over yet.
A Greco Roman Play – Enter the Lamb, stage right
‘Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” (Revelation 5:1-2).’ The seven scrolls and seals represent the good things of the world. His intention is to return the world to original goodness and human flourishing - that’s the drama. God is the one who holds a plan if it could but be opened! But there is no one found worthy and so the drama unfolds only to turn to tragedy because, ‘no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside (Revelation 5:3-4).’
The vision is now played out in the style of a Greco Roman Stage Play and contains all the elements of such with drama, tragedy, comedy, and chorus. John’s vision is being portrayed in the language of the day. The drama unfolds as the search for someone who is worthy to open the scroll continues. How tragic it would be if you believe the world would continue as it is because no one can be found to implement the plan. But then one of the elders says to John, ‘Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed (Revelation 5:5).’
And John turns to see and with a twist in the plot we turn from tragedy to comedy for there before him is not a lion but a lamb! He expects to see a strong, powerful beast and what he sees is a meek lamb as the scene is set for all that follows. The beasts to be found later in the vision are not to be conquered by another beast - but by a lamb. A new ‘power’ has been loosed in the world as lamb power becomes a new way of God working as out of the wings of the stage a chorus erupts as they sang a new song, saying: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth (Revelation 5:9-10).’
‘Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they were saying: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever!” The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped (Revelation 5:11-14).’
As Gorman notes, ‘The central and centring vision of Revelation is a vision of God and the Lamb, and specifically of the worship of God and the Lamb.’
And further he writes, ‘Both John and we, as readers, await the unveiling and identification of this powerful, conquering messianic Lion; perhaps both John and we suspect that the elder is directing our attention to Jesus, Lion of Judah and Son of David—and he is. But in “perhaps the most mind-wrenching ‘rebirth of images’ in literature,” the vision John receives and describes for us is not what anyone would expect. It is the vision of a slaughtered Lamb, not a ferocious Lion. “The shock of this reversal,” writes Richard Hays, “discloses the central mystery of the Apocalypse: God overcomes the world not through a show of force but through the suffering and death of Jesus, ‘the faithful witness.’
Following the Lamb
The power of the Lamb stands in direct opposition to all they can see in the Empire – and perhaps against all we witness in our world today. It leads us to ask questions of how the church functions in the world – what does the Kingdom of God, led by the image of the lamb that was slain look like? This is how the Apostle John sees it: ‘This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth (1 John 3:16-18).’
We have in so many ways a problem with power, what it is and how it functions, and we feel this particularly keenly in the West where culture is presenting as post Christian from what was once Judaeo Christian. I understand that concern and why we might feel when our voice is being marginalised, we must shout louder in order to be heard. But volume on its own rarely achieves anything.
For many in the church there is a feeling that ‘power’ is being taken away and the reaction to this is often fear. But the vision of Revelation 4 and 5 calls for a different response. ‘Come up here’ is the invitation – take a different perspective and build with different priorities. The charge is to gaze upon the lamb that was slain; to look in wonder on he who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seal. For regardless of our situation: persecution, fear, testing or temptation everything looks different when we turn our eyes upon Jesus.
The situation between the First and Twenty First Century is in many ways different but the challenge is the same: How do we live close to Jesus. The answer? To lift him high and to have a centring vision that frames every thought, conversation and action. As Gorman writes: ‘If there is no centre, there is no circumference. People who do not worship are swept into a vast restlessness, epidemic in the world, with no steady direction and no sustained purpose.’
As for the power play between the two images of lion and lamb, N.T. Wright goes someway to redress the balance.
‘There have been, down the years, plenty of lion-Christians. Yes, they think, Jesus died for us; but now God’s will is to be done in the lion-like fashion, through brute force and violence, to make the world come into line, to enforce God’s will. No, replies John; think of the lion, yes, but gaze at the lamb.’
‘And there have been plenty of lamb-Christians. Yes, they think, Jesus may have been ‘the lion of Judah’, but that’s a political idea which we should reject because salvation consists in having our sins wiped away so that we can get out of this compromised world and go off to heaven instead. No, replies John; gaze at the lamb, but remember that it is the lion’s victory that he has won.’
There is much a foot within the Church as she seeks to take stock of what Christian Faith will look like for a new generation – what should be held dearly, and what less so. These are not easy times in this regard as the hot topics of the day test the brightest brains in both technical scholarship and pastoral care. What we do know is that the future will not be a replay of the past, the navigation of complexity calls for cool heads, warm hearts and courageous souls but over this we should not fear. And how should we approach this future? Van Shore sets the tone well, ‘In Revelation, it is through this imagery of the Lamb that John’s audience is confronted with understanding “conquering” and “faithfulness” in terms of sacrifice and faithful witness, rather than physical violence or military might.’ Indeed – and this ought not to surprise us both from the life of the Christ we follow – and from the vision that we see here. The way of hope is always trodden on the pathway of sacrifice and peace – and peace rarely comes before a sacrifice is made. Which leaves us well to conclude with the words of the Apostle James who wrote a dispersed group of believers: ‘… the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness (James 3:17-18).’ And a life like that comes from those who have put the vision of the Lamb first.
Life is our greatest teacher. Learning from experience is the pathway of true maturity. As someone once said, 'Life will either make you bitter or better.' The outcome to that is dependent on the attitude you take; the habits you form and the choices you make. So here are 10 lessons I’ve been learning over the past decade....
And what of the coming decade? Well ,more of that later - but for now, A Happy New Year everyone!
I have a love hate relationship with Christmas; perhaps you do too! I hate the pressure it creates, the expectation that puts people under undue stress. The presents, cards, wrapping - the food to purchase and people to please. For many people Christmas can be an anxious time of year. But I love it too. The generosity that’s evident in the Foodbank we run; the kindness of people giving both food and time. It captures what is the essence of Christmas - it might stress us out - but it can and does bring the best out of us too.
Not only that but the ancient tradition of Christmas as captured through the carols gives life a perspective that’s desperately needed. Christmas is magical and mysterious - there is something beautiful to be captured in the generosity the season creates. And what about the sentiment of it all? Sentiment can be an overrated virtue, but at the same time it can anchor us in what’s important. I was reminded about this just yesterday.
I was sitting with my dad listening to the KS2 choir at school. Noah was part of it and watching the performance I felt sentimental. Many of the songs carry such depth - and for me wonderful truth. They help to anchor the heart in a sense of history and heritage - I see them as more than simply tradition. There is truth in those carols - truth that resonates and calibrates the soul. The Carol Service was at the end of the school day - a day which had resulted in numerous encounters each reminding me of the importance to stop, look and think at Christmas time.
I had the responsibility to officiate the funeral of an elderly lady first thing. She was 95 at her time of passing and had lived with mostly good health. Much to celebrate indeed. Before I made my way to the funeral, I met a young lady who I’d not seen since she was a child of about 11. She’d made her way through the world - not without her challenges but she looked well and had her young son with her. I’d known the family and was pleased to see her after almost two decades.
When I arrived to take the service, and stood in the waiting room a lady along with her young daughter ran in. ‘Where is the funeral please, the cremation for babies?’ She was late, stressed, and disoriented - she was attending the service for the loss of her baby. She was so young and facing such loss. We helped her find the chapel, it was the least, the only thing we could do.
After the service I spoke to someone who appeared to hold a deep grudge. It was a strange moment. The bitterness was tangible - odd, at one level - sad at another. The passing of years doesn’t always bring healing.
When it came to the committal, we all stepped carefully between the mud sodden turf to navigate our way to the grave. My responsibility to read the closing words on a life well lived. ‘Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life.’ Such is the privilege of the Pastor’s role - to bring comfort and closure at the end of this earthly life.
On returning for the wake I sat and chatted. The lady I spoke with had lost her son over a decade ago. It’s a pain that never dissipates - just one which over time you learn to carry better than at first. Life comes with no guarantees. Our pain makes us either bitter or better - we all have to choose.
And so with the tie removed, mud still on my shoes from earlier, I sit with dad to listen to Noah sing. It’s as good as life gets. To sit in that moment and treasure it. They are the precious moments when memories are made. Life savoured for what it really is. ‘The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.’ They sang. Better stop, look and think about that. The relentless unfolding of time continues and here we are at the closing of another year. Better stop, look and think about that. For God’s sake, one and all - please this Christmas, stop, look and think about that. Life is precious - each day a gift - use it wisely and invest it well. Happy Christmas everyone.
Revelation can be a mysterious, strange and scary book. The imagery, language, pictures are dramatic: dragons, beasts, plagues, curses - all this is scary stuff, especially when read in the Bible - a book we come to in order to find hope and comfort. So what are we to make of it?
Revelation tells a cosmic story - the means by which God brings redemption to the world. But it also speaks to us about how we are to live in the light of this. The throne at the centre of the story is at the heart of what this means - worship of the lamb.
To enter into the message of the book, we must set it in its historical context and this means understanding genre and how that genre uses symbols and allegory to paint a picture that those with eyes to see and ears to hear will understand.
Revelation is a book to be taken seriously but perhaps not in the way we have previously considered; at least not for the approach we are taking here because for our sojourn into the book we are choosing a devotional route - a path with discipleship at its heart. When we leave Revelation it must be as those whose hearts have been drawn deeper into our worship of the lamb.
John’s apocalypse is written to churches living under the domination of the Roman Empire, and the propaganda of the might of Rome was having a significant impact upon the church which spanned from relative prosperity on the one hand to a real fear of persecution on the other. The seven Churches are addressed directly by Jesus, “Write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches: to Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea.” Revelation 1:11 The Lord of the Church is directing his people with a combination of both commendation and correction. How will they stay faithful in the midst of all they face was at the heart of what is written. The challenge they faced was ultimately one of devotion. Of how, in the midst of living every day, they will maintain loyalty to he who says, ‘I am the First and the Last. I am the Living One; I was dead, and now look, I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades. Revelation 1:17-18’
The challenge was very real - and in a way we can fail to understand. Morgan writes: ‘As Christian individuals and communities in Asia Minor interacted with family members, friends, business associates, and public officials who did not share their conviction that “Jesus is Lord,” the basic early Christian confession (Rom 10:9), these believers were faced with hard questions and decisions. Should they continue to participate in social activities that have a pagan (non-Jewish, non-Christian) religious character? This would include most activities: watching or participating in athletic and rhetorical contests; buying and eating meat in the precincts of pagan temples; and frequenting trade guilds, clubs, and events in private homes, each with their meetings, drinking parties, and banquets. They would even have wondered, “Should we or can we go to pagan temples to do our banking or purchase meat? Should we acknowledge the sovereignty of the emperor when asked to do so at a public event in the precincts of his temple, or at another of the many events in his honor?”’
It was real because of the imminent threat up their life. The Church in Pergamum new this only too well since they had witnessed the martyrdom of one of their own as we see in the letter written to them. ‘Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, not even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city—where Satan lives.’ Revelation 2:13
Remaining true was a choice - one we can overlook for the simple reason the threat is not the same. We live in relative safety, the West is increasingly post Christian but we don’t live with the real fear of persecution - the values of our faith may be increasingly marginalised but that’s a very different thing. We can still peacefully practice our religion even if we have lost our voice to shape policy and practice in the nation. Our challenge is not so much persecution as it is relevance and more importantly - compromise. The current danger is not that we would die for our faith but that we would live without it. We are in practice closer to Laodicea than we are Pergamum. For the church in Laodicea a different subtle and deceptive agent was at work.
‘These are the words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the ruler of God’s creation. I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm---neither hot nor cold---I am about to spit you out of my mouth. You say, 'I am rich; I have acquired wealth and do not need a thing.' But you do not realize that you are wretched, pitiful, poor, blind and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined in the fire, so you can become rich; and white clothes to wear, so you can cover your shameful nakedness; and salve to put on your eyes, so you can see. Revelation 3:14-18.’
The relative prosperity of the town of Laodicea had led the believers into a form of security built around the acquiring of wealth - they’d concluded they were fine, their wealth providing safety that was referred for Jesus alone. Their rebuke was clear and forthright - it was time for turning back to the loyalty of the Lamb.
I think we can too easily identify with the charge laid at the door of the Laodiceans - the human heart has a propensity to stray - the book of Revelation is written to draw us back to Christ alone. It teaches us what living for the Lamb is all about and it is built around what is the central vision of the book found in chapters 4 and 5.
Morgan writes, ‘In worship, the community of faith realizes its new identity under the lordship of the Lamb and under the conscious, intentional rejection of the claims to lordship made by Babylon/Rome. As the place where the new being is repeatedly practiced, worship is also a locus of resistance against the anti-God powers, and, since the Apocalypse was read out in worship, also a place of hearing, seeing, learning, and insight.’
Rome has quickly established itself as an imperial cult under the leadership of the Caesars, a term helpfully explained in Wikipedia. ‘An imperial cult is a form of state religion in which an emperor or a dynasty of emperors (or rulers of another title) are worshipped as demigods or deities. "Cult" here is used to mean "worship", not in the modern pejorative sense.’
The Imperial cult was inseparable from that of Rome's official deities, whose cult was essential to Rome's survival and whose neglect was therefore treasonous. It's when you understand the centrality of state worship in these terms that we start to understand the implication of making a counter claim to the Empire – the traditional greeting: ‘Caesar is Lord’, is replaced by the growing group of Christians: ‘No! Jesus is Lord’. We sing the words as a song – they sung them on the way to be doused in tar and set a light. No wonder they felt such a dilemma as to what loyalty to Jesus might mean for them.
This imperial cult was especially widespread in Asia Minor and the cities where the churches of Revelation were located. Pergamum, site of “Satan’s throne” (Rev 2:13)—possibly a reference to the temple of the imperial cult at the top of the city’s imposing acropolis—was permitted in 29 B.C., by the very first emperor, Augustus, to erect a temple to him and to Rome. Cities like Ephesus and Smyrna also had significant temples of the imperial cult. Ephesus was frequently recognized as a proper guardian of the imperial cult, and the city blended its worship of Artemis with worship of the emperor. Smyrna had built a temple to the goddess Roma in 195 B.C. and then one to Emperor Tiberius in A.D. 26. There was some form of the imperial cult in all seven cities. A challenge to all the churches – one which is addressed by John – the hearing and seeing one.
And so, ‘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’ (Rev 1:3). The words of Revelation come to us from John – the prophet pastor in order that those following after the Lamb might be formed and transformed into the likeness of Jesus.
That’s why the book of Revelation should be read as a devotional quest. Where do our loyalties lie -and do those loyalties change with the latest idea, concept or challenge?
For the churches identified in Revelation the challenge of loyalty came at three levels:
Morgan sets well the tone of our own study when he writes: ‘That Revelation 2–3 contains an outline of church history seems rather forced and quite far-fetched. But the idea that these seven churches somehow symbolize the range of possible Christian churches—particularly the range of common dangers the churches face—is much more plausible.’
If our journey into the prophecy draws out such qualities in greater measure then maybe its done its job – of securing the hearts and minds of the followers of Jesus today. What is for certain the challenge of loyalty is one we all face – and often on several fronts, how we handle this determines whether with any level of integrity we can say in the face of any dominant empire or force, whether of this age or the one to come: Jesus is Lord.
 Reading Revelation Responsibly; Michael J. Morgan. Location 772
 Reading Revelation Responsibly; Michael J. Morgan. Location 825
 Reading Revelation Responsibly; Michael J. Morgan. Location 985
 Reading Revelation Responsibly; Michael J. Morgan. Location 2020
 Some having taken the seven churches and read them as different ages for the church – such a reading suggests that currently the age of the church is Laodicean but this is not the approach we are taking in these studies.
 Reading Revelation Responsibly; Michael J. Morgan. Location 2003
I recently worked through a teaching series at Hope based on the book of Revelation. Because of the nature of the book and some of its complexities I prepared additional notes which we will compile together over time as an e-book. In the meantime i thought I would post them a section at a time on my blog.
Revelation is not for the faint hearted which is why many Christians have stayed well clear of this complex, yet extraordinary book. The great Reformer, Martin Luther said: ‘“to my mind, it [the book of the Revelation] bears upon it no marks of an apostolic or prophetic character… Everyone may form his own judgment of this book; as for myself, I feel an aversion to it, and to me this is sufficient reason for rejecting it.” Harsh comments from the founder of Protestantism! That it’s difficult to interpret is without doubt, so much so that it was the only book in the New Testament for which Calvin didn’t write a commentary. It was both its strangeness and lack of clarity over authorship – it’s widely acknowledged that the John referred to is not the Apostle John – that almost left Revelation outside the New Testament canon. Yet this book, edged as it was into the Holy Book by the ‘skin of its teeth’ has kept tongues wagging and debates rolling for Centuries. So, what are we to make of it and what place does the Apocalypse (which is what Revelation means) hold for the life of believers today? The answer lies in how we view the book, for what we see will determine how we interpret it and there are at least four ways this has been attempted over the years. But more of that later.
For now, we need to trace a path into Revelation that will help navigate a course and hopefully make the book more accessible. Like myself, many Christians approach Revelation as a predictive text for end times - in fact this has been the normal approach of late Nineteenth Century Christian Fundamentalism, however this will not be the way that I handle the text here. Over the years I have held many different views of the End Times (or Eschatology as it’s known) - in terms of when and how the ‘end of the age’ will come to pass.
My early Christianity led me to books by authors like Hal Lindsey - The Late Great Planet Earth and Approaching Armageddon. There was a lot of literalism tied into the interpretation along with diagrams of nuclear arsenals held between the United States and the then USSR. Such teachings led one to believe in either a pre, mid or post tribulation rapture - as if the rapture was a fundamental part of Christian Orthodoxy - rather than a more recent approach made popular by books like the Left Behind Series. Such teaching followed me all the way to Bible College and back out again. This time framed in the teaching of a more moderate and considered theology from David Pawson and his book, When Jesus Returns. What I appreciated about Pawson was his commitment to Scripture and interpreting it well, whilst at the same time acknowledging the different schools of thought in areas where the Church has held more than one view.
Entering the pastorate can easily take you away from theology and, if you are not well disciplined, the ongoing process of learning. In recent years it has led me to hold eschatology at a distance, but you can only do this for so long. Eschatology matters, because it is tied deeply to what we believe about the world we inhabit and the end of the age, and thus how we view and manage current social, economic, political and environmental issues. One might argue the value of this save for one matter of critical importance - the young. The Western Church - and particularly American Evangelicalism, which is usually then played out in UK Christian Culture too, is haemorrhaging millennials and young people. They are leaving the faith of their parents and this should matter to us. What we teach our young people about the future and theology, and in particular eschatology, matters. It is one of the issues that can help people disconnect from their faith altogether when the Church is seen to be dismissive of the world in which we live.
I grew up with the overriding narrative that Christ will return and the earth will be burned by fire therefore any work around conservation, climate change - the environment etc, was of little value. What mattered was seeing people saved - of getting them to heaven when they die. The gospel was very much framed around this idea. This was birthed out of a Platonical and dualist thinking about life and the separation of soul and spirit. Today we have a much broader understanding of the interrelated aspects of life. Science has served us well in this regard - we understand how the whole of life is connected and you can’t simply act in one area of life and not see the effect elsewhere.
People care about the world they live in. Pollution in our oceans; rising sea levels; disregard for the rain forests and the like cause us to wonder what is happening in the world and move the young to ask - what we are doing to this one, beautiful planet? Poor eschatology has done a bad job of answering this which is why we must do better.
When reading apocalyptic literature, which is what we read in Revelation, and other Bible passages like Daniel 7 and the Olivet discourse in the gospels, Matthew 24, Luke 21, Mark 13 (amongst others), we need to understand what is happening. The language of destroy, I believe, would be better replaced with that of renew, restore and reconcile. God is in the business of reconciling all things to himself in Christ (Colossians 1:20). So what does this look like?
I will be approaching our study of Revelation from this perspective since I believe this is the most pastorally relevant. As Michael J. Morgan writes ‘How one reads, teaches, and preaches Revelation can have a powerful impact on one’s own—and other people’s—emotional, spiritual, and even physical and economic well-being. Therefore, interpreting the book of Revelation is a serious and sacred responsibility, not to be entered into lightly. Furthermore, although Scripture is a living word from God that can bring a fresh message to people in changing contexts, with respect to Revelation it must be clearly stated that some readings are not only inferior to others, they are in fact unchristian and unhealthy.’
That Revelation should be read as a subversive text has its clue not only from its genre but also its historical context. It teaches how to live in the face of dominant empires that are calling for the devotion that is reserved for God himself. It also highlights our tendency to idolatry and how we must avoid this form of duplicity. Our lives are to be given to the Lamb sacrificed is what Revelation teaches or as Morgan puts it: ‘Revelation is not about the antichrist, but about the living Christ. It is not about a rapture out of this world but about faithful discipleship in this world.’
I am approaching my studies as a pastor rather than a scholar and therefore draw heavily on the work of scholars in interpreting Revelation. My role is to shepherd and so I will spend most time looking at how we should read the book devotionally and pastorally as humble servants of Jesus - or, as we will see, the Lamb.
Time will be given to investigating the text in its original setting since this is the first point of interpretation. As Dr Van Shore says, ‘First century Jews and Christians were familiar with apocalyptic literature and motifs, it is appropriate to locate Revelation within the flow of Jewish apocalyptic literature of the period, concerning the conventions available to Revelation’s author and audience.’ It’s helpful to realise that what we read as strange, for the Jews of the New Testament, the language and imagery was common place and formed a genre of which we find lots of examples outside of Scripture and was very popular in the 1st Century.
We should only ask what Revelation means to us when we have answered - what did the book mean to them? As Schussler Fiorenza points out, ‘it is universally acknowledged that Revelation has to be understood in its historical-cultural and religious context’.
John writes Revelation to seven historical churches situated around Asia Minor - it is only in appreciating what it meant to them that the book can have any value to us. Our first job is historical clarity before we consider contemporary application. There is for sure a contemporary application to Revelation - one more relevant today than ever, but that is not so much to predict the end of the age as it is to live as faithful followers of the one who is the Alpha and Omega.
A Cosmic Story set in the Context of a Global Empire
Revelation tells a story – it’s a story about God’s call to faithfulness in the face of a dominant Empire. The Empire is Rome – Babylon, the beast or the Whore, as depicted in the book. The challenge is how these small groups of Jesus followers will live in the light of such domination. As Morgan writes, ‘No one can read Revelation without sensing that it tells a story, even if that story does not have a merely linear progression. There are major and minor characters, there is conflict and resolution, there is even a plot. Some have even likened Revelation to an ancient drama, complete with Greek choruses that burst into (liturgical) song, providing commentary on, as well as respite from, the dramatic action.’
The story unfolds through five main plots as described by Morgan.
1. Creation and re-creation. This is the story of the faithful, missional, creator God bringing humanity and all creation to its proper end: reconciliation, harmony, and eternal joy in the presence of God.
2. Redemption. This is the closely related story of the faithful, missional, redeemer Lamb living, dying, reigning, and coming again to carry out the creator God’s mission and create a faithful, missional people.
3. Judgment. This is the story of the faithful, missional God and the Lamb bringing an end to evil as a necessary means for the purpose of re-creation and final redemption.
4. Witness: the suffering pilgrim church. This is the story of a faithful, missional people on earth who have been redeemed by the Lamb and empowered by the Spirit to worship and bear witness to God and the Lamb in spite of danger and persecution.
5. Victory: the church triumphant. This is the story of the faithful, missional people who worship God and the Lamb now and forever in their presence, the appropriate reward for their faithfulness even to death.
The question is how do we enter this story today? What do beasts, dragons, and plagues have to do with 2019 and the world we live in? Again, we are not studying Revelation as a text that offers a chronological unfolding of world events but rather a drama through which the call to devotion in the face of opposition lies at its core. Most of my reading has drawn on the work of contemporary scholars who will readily acknowledge that the entire book of Revelation ‘is a critique and parody of the Roman Empire and of the cult of the emperor that was rampant in the Roman province of Asia in the second half of the first century’.
Taking this approach, it’s helpful to clarify the different ways in which Revelation as a book and other apocalyptic literature in the Bible has been viewed. In the main there are four: Futurist, Preterist, Historicist, Idealist.
Revelation - Four Basic Approaches
David Pawson in his book, When Jesus Returns, explains the four approaches as:
Preterist – The predictions [of Revelation] were fulfilled during the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, when the church was under the pressures of imperial persecutions.
Historicist – The predictions cover the entire church age between the first and second comings of Christ. It is a coded history of ‘anno domini’ in symbolic form, covering the major phases and crises of the entire period. So the fulfilment is past, present and future to us. We are right in there and from what has already come to pass we can know what is next on the programme.
Futurist – This approach believes that the central block of predictions applies to the last few years leading up to the second coming. It is therefore still future to us today, hence the label.
Idealist – This approach removes all specific time references and discourages correlation with particular events.
Revelation pictures the ‘eternal’ struggle between good and evil and the ‘truths’ can be applied to and century.
In examining the futurist view further, we see it teaches the events of Revelation, in the main have still to be fulfilled in the future. The most common form of this approach today is dispensationalism, popularized especially by the Plymouth Brethren teacher J. N. D. Darby (1808–82), then by the Scofield Bible.
Van Shore writes, ‘Fundamentalists are adamant that Revelation, supplemented by a few other portions of the Bible, contains a systematic doctrine of the end times. Hence, secondary works that most capture the public’s attention are those that read Revelation as literal predictions of events and persons in our own time. Lindsey (1971) is an example of the reformulation of the apocalyptic theme into cultural commonplaces of continuing relevance. Krodel critiques Lindsey’s premillennialist use of the Bible “as God’s gigantic jigsaw puzzle to help us figure out the final events” (1989: 28). He says, The notion of divine rapture from the inevitable holocaust buttresses self righteous, narcissistic smugness; the rejection of negotiations and compromise with our international opponents divides nations along lines of absolute good and absolute evil. The premillennialist ideologies concerning the State of Israel have made their devotees deaf to the cries of Palestinians and to the need of a shared humanity (1989: 28).
The dominant reading in popular Christian culture of Revelation has been a literal reading in which all the apocalyptic symbols are made static and the text is ripped out of its first century C.E. context. Pippin says that, Fundamentalists actually rewrite Revelation to fit their own conservative political agendas, which are based on cold war rhetoric of the Soviet Union as ‘other’ or on any political threat perceived as ‘other’ (1994: 109).’
Although dispensationalism held ground strongly in the Evangelical community of the 70’s and 80’s especially in America, recent scholarship is bringing about change – a change noted mostly by turning to a preterist approach to Revelation. Richard Middleton in his book, A New Heaven and a New Earth writes, ‘Preterist interpretation, which is standard in Old Testament scholarship, interprets prophetic literature as addressing the prophet’s own situation with a message about God’s historical intervention for judgment and salvation. A preterist approach to New Testament eschatology results in taking the prophecies of Jesus in the Olivet discourse (Matt. 24; Mark 13) or John’s predictions in the book of Revelation as primarily addressing events and issues of their own day. This is the position of many (if not most) New Testament scholars, though in addition most would claim that Jesus and John also looked ahead to a final cosmic fulfilment at the second coming.’
The shift has several things at heart which are real keys in our understanding. Modern scholarship which over time finds its way into the popular main stream is driving real change from what was seen as ‘rescue and remove’ eschatology to a holistic eschatology that understands the work of God as redemptive in creation as a whole. Or, as N. T. Wright puts it: “God’s rescue of the created order itself, rather than the rescue of saved souls from the created order.” But change is at work amongst progressive dispensationalists too. Middleton notes ‘R. Todd Mangum, who has impeccable dispensationalist credentials (a doctorate from Dallas Theological Seminary and a recipient of the John F. Walvoord Award for outstanding work in eschatology) admits that “little good has come of dispensationalists’ emphasis on a pre-tribulational rapture up to now; there is promise for even less good to come of such emphasis in the future.”103 He suggests that dispensationalists adopt a posture of “rapture agnosticism,” both because of the doctrine’s negative ethical effects and because it is not clearly taught in Scripture.’
A Theological Poem
There is however a further way we can approach Revelation and that, in the words of Eugene Peterson as a ‘theological poem’ that ‘does not call for decipherment’ but ‘evokes wonder’ which to my mind draws us to worship. Worship is at the heart the Revelation – all God’s people worship him. And this approach directs what is the emphasis of our journey into the Apocalypse for the deeper the mystery the greater the worship. At its best Revelation stirs our heart to devotion in the face of any trial and tribulation we may face.
Getting to Grips with the Structure
Although our studies in Revelation are not exegetical – we are not taking an in depth chapter by chapter or verse by verse approach there is value in having an overview of how the book is laid out. The book s a whole can be broken into three main sections: Opening Vision and the Letters to the Churches – Revelation 1-3; Centering Vision of God and the Lamb – Revelation 4-5; Visions of the Judgement of God – Revelation 6-20; Final vision of the New Creation – Revelation 21-22
N.T. Wright gives an helpful overview when he writes:
‘We have already had the seven letters to the churches. Now we are to be introduced to the seven seals, which are opened between 6.1 and 8.1. The seventh introduces a further sequence, the seven trumpets, which are blown one by one from 8.6 to 11.15. Then, at the centre of the book, we find visions which unveil the ultimate source of evil and its chief agents: the Dragon, the Beast from the Sea and the Beast from the Land – and also a vision of those who have somehow defeated these monsters (chapters 12—15).
This then leads into the final sequence of seven: the seven bowls of God’s wrath, the final plagues which, like the plagues of Egypt (15.1), will be the means of judging the great tyrannical power and rescuing God’s people from its claws. These bowls of wrath are poured out in chapter 16, but their effect is described more fully in chapters 17 and 18, leading to the celebration of victory over the two Beasts in chapter 19. That only leaves the old Dragon himself, and the last twists of his fate are described in chapter 20. This then clears the stage for the final unveiling of God’s eventual plan: the New Jerusalem in which heaven and earth are joined fully and for ever.’
I trust you will find what is to follow interesting and helpful, that it might be accessible by way entering the book and challenging for each as it draws out of us a deeper devotion to the Jesus. And might these wide words from Wright help us gauge our studies well:
‘Perhaps at this point above all the rest of the New Testament, in my experience – it doesn’t do to be too dogmatic. We must hold on to the central things which John has made crystal clear: the victory of the lamb, and the call to share his victory through faith and patience. God will then do what God will then do. Whether we describe the final events as Revelation 20 has done, or as Paul does in Romans 8.18–26 or 1 Corinthians 15.20–28, it is clear that the one who wins the victory is the creator God, who does so to defeat and abolish death itself and so to open the way to the glories of the renewed creation. That is what matters.
Our study is over 5 sessions which are:
Session One The Devotional Quest
Session Two The Centring Vision
Session Three The Faithful Witness
Session Four The Just Cause
Session Five The Ultimate Reality
 Reading Revelation Responsibly; Michael J. Morgan. Location 111
 Reading Revelation Responsibly; Michael J. Morgan. Location 132
 Dr Van Shore – Doctoral Thesis. Having Ears to Hear: John and the Audience of Revelation. p.89
 Dr Van Shore – Doctoral Thesis. Having Ears to Hear: John and the Audience of Revelation. p.37
 Reading Revelation Responsibly; Michael J. Morgan. Location 887
 Reading Revelation Responsibly; Michael J. Morgan. Location 898
 Reading Revelation Responsibly; Michael J. Morgan. Location 941
 Dr Van Shore – Doctoral Thesis. Having Ears to Hear: John and the Audience of Revelation.
 J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth. P.308
 N.T. Wright, How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels
 J. Richard Middleton, A New Heaven and a New Earth. P.308
 N.T. Wright – Revelation for Everyone, p.43
13] N.T. Wright – Revelation for Everyone, p.181