As I mentioned in a previous post, Revelation 1 is a like backstage pass. Along with John, we get the opportunity to meet the Easter Jesus in person before he takes center-stage in chapters 4 and 5 to unleash God’s plan upon the world. Between Revelation 1 and 4, chapters 2 and 3 — the messages to the seven churches in Asia Minor — act as a sort of literary corridor moving us from backstage to frontstage.
The Revelation is a “circular letter,” designed to be delivered by messenger to each of the seven churches. By addressing the seven churches, John accomplishes a few things. First, each church becomes aware of the particular issues facing the other churches in the region. By doing this, John begins the process of enlarging the local churches’ perspectives from their own struggles to a vision of the larger Church and its role in God’s unfolding plan for creation. In order to observe all that is revealed in the Revelation (1:3), each church must view its life and struggles in the context of the larger Church. The local churches are not isolated communities, but intimately connected to one another by the Resurrected Christ as his one body.
Second, John reveals to each local church how Jesus, as the Lord of the Church, is personally concerned with each local faith-community. The majestic Lord that we met in Revelation 1 is walking among the lampstands (the churches). He is the Lord of the Church as well as the local expressions of the Church. He sees and knows their deeds. He feels their struggles. He calls his wayward people to repent. He will vanquish their enemies. Regardless of the severe persecution from without or the sinister compromise from within, Jesus is always in their midst.
Third, despite the specific issues, Jesus calls all of his people to “overcome,” which is a military term for victory. Not only is John enlarging the local churches’ vision beyond their own communities, he is also revealing that each church’s issues are part of a larger cosmic battle between good and evil. By overcoming and remaining faithful to the gospel of Christ, each person and local faith-community performs their part in the cosmic battle. The seven separate exhortations to overcome given to the local churches are drawn together by one final exhortation to overcome at the end of the Revelation. Those who faithfully participated in the battle against evil by remaining faithful and overcoming will ultimately inherit the New Creation (Revelation 21:7).
As mentioned earlier, the messages to the seven churches act as a literary corridor moving us from the vision of Christ as the ever-present Lord of the Church in chapter 1 to the vision of Christ in God’s throne room as the Lord of Creation in chapters 4 & 5. The primary theme of the Revelation is a holy war. We quickly discover that the same Easter Jesus who calls his people to overcome is the Lion of Judah (a military image) and the only one capable and worthy to execute God’s plan upon the earth. So not only has John expanded the local churches’ vision beyond their own communities to the larger Church, but John is also helping the local churches to see their current struggles from both a heavenly perspective and a eschatological perspective. They are involved in a holy war, one being waged by the Lord of heaven and earth and one that will ultimately usher in God’s New Creation in the future. So how they live their lives now — their faithfulness to the gospel — is their contribution to the campaign.
With prophetic insight, John realizes that the struggles of the local churches are just the beginnings of what is soon coming. And the urgency of the messages to the these churches reveals John’s pastoral concern that they may not be ready for the ensuing battle. So the Resurrected Christ calls his people to repent and to overcome, even to the point of death. That is their only hope in what is about to occur.
The cosmic battle depicted in the Revelation is expressed on the ground between two opposing ideologies — the kingdom of heaven and the Roman Empire. Like many ancient empires, political loyalty was enforced through religious means. By the time of the New Testament, Rome viewed itself as divine. It was the “eternal city,” whose prosperity and military might offered security to its populace. This security was known as pax Romana, the peace of Rome. And Rome’s ideology was further enforced by the Emperor cult, which viewed Caesar as the “son of God.” Loyal citizens would proclaim that Caesar was “Lord and Savior.”
The churches addressed by John struggled at two points – persecution as they resisted Roman ideology or compromise as they were tempted to embrace Roman ideology and the security and prosperity it offered. So John offers prophetic insight, exposing Rome as a system of violent oppression maintained by political tyranny (the beast – Revelation 13 & 17) and economic exploitation (the harlot – Revelation 17-18). By offering both the heavenly and eschatological perspective, the Revelation makes it absolutely clear that God’s people must choose either the ideology of Rome or God’s perspective, seeing Rome for what it truly is. The battle line has been drawn and God’s people must either choose loyalty to his kingdom or the Roman Empire.
So how does this apply to us today? Writing from the perspective as an apprentice of Jesus living in the U.S., I personally believe that the Church in the U.S. lives in the New Rome. The U.S. embraces its “manifest destiny” in the global community more than ever. Our leaders use biblical language to justify our role in the war on terrorism and the propagation of democratic freedom around the world. We have established our global dominance through military might and economic exploitation. We view ourselves as a divine instrument in the world. And we justify our actions because of the new “pax America” we bring. And from this exalted position, we thumb our collective nose at most opportunities for global cooperation in the pursuit of our national self-interests and continue to consume most of the world’s resources.
If the Revelation speaks to us today, I think one of its messages to the Church in the New Rome is to repent and overcome. We cannot allow our imaginations as God’s missional community to be shaped by our nation’s ideology. This world and this country are not a friend to grace, no matter who lives in the White House or which party dominates our legislative body. What motivated and energized the Roman Empire at the time of the Revelation fuels the U.S.
Don’t misunderstand me, I’m not simply picking a fight with the U.S. I think the Revelation’s message is equally relevant to the Church in virtually every nation. But the U.S., having been birthed from a Christendom perspective and now enjoying the privilege as the dominant global power, weds its ideology with Christian language in a way similar to Rome. And God’s people must not blindly accept this distorted ideology and live as if the U.S. is God’s instrument in the world. If we do, we may find ourselves at the cutting edge of Jesus’ double-edged sword.
Like it our not, we are at war. I personally don’t like that imagery. But Paul used it and John used it. Yet Paul says that the weapons we use don’t originate from this world’s order. Instead, we overcome evil with good. And as we will discover in John 4 & 5, our Commander, God’s vanquishing Lion, actually wages war as a slain lamb. That is our strategy — a cross-shaped life of self-sacrifice, allowing evil to do its worst to us as we continue to embody the love and life of the New Creation, even to the point of death.