Climax of Prophecy – Review and Commentary

Richard Bauckham says he has been fascinated by the Book of Revelation and has studied it for twenty years. In Climax of Prophecy, he offers a way to understand Revelation as rooted in early Jewish Christianity yet applicable for all times, places, and peoples.

Bauckham examines the book’s literary composition, use of Old Testament scriptures, place within the Jewish and Christian apocalypse traditions, and its contextuality then, now, and in the future. To this last point, he writes this about Revelation’s true character,

…As a prophetic critique of the political idolatry and economic oppression intrinsic to Roman power in the late first century, and as a call to its readers to bear witness to the truth and righteousness of God in the specific circumstances — religious, political, social, and economic — in which they lived in the cities of the Roman province of Asia. p. xiii

However, Bauckham writes that Revelation cannot be reduced to only a sociological commentary, but instead,

Justice must be done to its character as a sophisticated literary work of individual genius, embodying a highly reflective vision of the impact of the divine purpose on the contemporary world. Its social strategy — a call to radical dissociation from structural evil — is based on a perception of the Roman Empire as an oppressive system, characterized by political idolatry and economic exploitation. p. xiv

Climax of Prophecy is composed of eleven essays, many of which have been published previously. Bauckham has tied the essays together by inline cross-references and updated them. The essay titles are,

  1. Structure and Composition
  2. The Use of Apocalyptic Traditions
  3. Synoptic Parousia Parables and the Apocalypse
  4. The Worship of Jesus
  5. The Role of the Spirit
  6. The Lion, the Lamb, and the Dragon
  7. The Eschatological Earthquake
  8. The Apocalypse as a Christian War Scroll
  9. The Conversion of the Nations
  10. The Economic Critique of Rome in Revelation
  11. Nero and the Beast

This is a technical book, not a reader’s commentary. Bauckham studies and analyzes Early Greek. He references and critiques many authors. However, there are nuggets of insight to be had for lay people like me.

The following materials are based on my note taking while reading Bauckham’s commentary. I believe his interpretation is closest to a right understanding of Revelation though I reserve the possibility of limited historical correlation, yet not in a way that violates the scripture,

But concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. Be on guard, keep awake. For you do not know when the time will come. Mark 13:32-33 (English Standard Version)

But, instead, in a way that affirms the scripture,

From the fig tree learn its lesson: as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts out its leaves, you know that summer is near. So also, when you see all these things, you know that he is near, at the very gates. Matthew 24:32-33 (ESV)

And we must not forget, the end, our end, is always near (Rom. 13:11.)

Pictures of the Apocalypse (1933,) Great Babylon (Rev. 17:3,) Gebhard Fugel (1863-1939)

Bauckham offers the following simplified section division of Revelation in chapter one, “Structure and Composition,” page 25:

VersesDivision Title
1:9–3:22Inaugural vision of Christ and the churches including seven messages to the churches
4:1–5:14Inaugural vision of heaven leading to three series of sevens and two intercalations:
 6:1–8:1; 8:3–5Seven seals, numbered 4 + 1 + (1 + intercalation) + 1
 8:2; 8:6 – 11:19Seven trumpets, numbered 4 + 1 + (1 + intercalation) + 1
12:1–14:20; 15:2–4The story of God’s people in conflict with evil
15:1; 15:5 – 16:21Seven bowls, numbered (4 + 3) without intercalation
17:1–19:10Babylon the harlot
19:11–21:8Transition from Babylon to the New Jerusalem
21:9–22:5The New Jerusalem the bride

In chapter seven, “The Eschatological Earthquake,” Bauckham writes that “John’s method of expanding earlier images in later visions” likely is an overarching principle controlling the structure of the book. An interesting conjecture he makes under this assumption is that Revelation, verses 19:11 – 21:8, are a recapitulation of prior visions which serve as a transition from John’s description of Babylon the Harlot in chapters 17-18 to New Jerusalem the Bride in chapter 21. Revelation 20:1-10 is likely not an added interval before the Last Judgment but rather a different way of seeing the Last Days between the Crucifixion and Parousia.

Returning to chapter one, “Structure and Composition,” Bauckham contends that John, like many of his Jewish contemporaries, used the technique of verbal coincidences between scriptural texts (gezera šāwâ) to not only study the Old Testament, like they did, but to construct his Revelation. He observes,

Texts containing the same words or phrases could be used to interpret each other. In effect, Scripture was treated as containing the same kind of network of internal cross-reference by repetition of phrases (often, of course, in somewhat varying form) as John has created in his own work. Since John certainly understood himself to be writing the same kind of inspired, prophetic work as the prophetic scriptures he studied, the parallel is surely not accidental. John wrote a work to which he expected the technique of gezera šāwâ to be applied, a work which would yield much of its meaning only to the application of this exegetical technique. p. 30

Bauckham also identifies numerical symbolism and coincidences as important to the structure of the book. For example, he writes,

Corresponding to the 7 times 4 occurrences of the Lamb, are the seven occurrences of the fourfold phrase by which Revelation designates the nations of the world (‘peoples and tribes and languages and nations’: the phrase varies each time it occurs but is always fourfold: 5:9; 7:9; 10:11; 11:9; 13:7; 14:6; 17:15. It designates all the nations of the world, who, despite their present allegiance to Babylon and the beast, [are] the object of the Lamb’s conquest to bring into God’s kingdom. p. 37

Additionally, Bauckham cites common myths, zodiacal signs, and recent history with which John’s readers would be familiar as raw materials for John to freely use to inform and challenge his readers to patient endurance, gospel witness, and moral obedience.

In chapter two, Bauckham discusses the uses of apocalyptic traditions in Revelation. He points out that the contrast between hearing the number of God’s servants who were sealed and seeing the great multitude no one could number before the throne and the Lamb conveys a new message for God’s people. He writes,

Thus, John has made use of the tradition about the completion of the number of the martyrs and integrated it into the sequence of seven seal-openings in order to raise, for the first time, a major theme of his prophecy: that the remaining interval before the coming of God’s kingdom is the period in which God’s faithful people must bear witness to the point of suffering and death. p. 57

The third chapter, titled, “Synoptic Parousia Parables and the Apocalypse,” is mostly technical, citing correspondence between verses in the synoptic gospels and Revelation. I refer you to an earlier blog post for an outlined correlation.

In chapter four, titled “The Worship of Jesus,” Bauckham says that “the theme of his whole prophecy is the distinction between true worship and idolatry.” He writes,

The ‘eternal Gospel’ is summarized in the words ‘Fear God and give him glory… and worship him’ (14:7), and the conflict between God and Satan takes historical form in the conflict of human allegiances manifest in worship. The Apocalypse divides mankind into the worshippers of the dragon and the beast (13:4, 8,12,15; 14:9, 11; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4; cf. the emphasis on idolatry in 2:14, 20; 9:20) and those who will worship God in the heavenly Jerusalem (7:15; 14:3; 15:3-4; 22:3; cf. 11:1). p. 135

He says the contrast between beast worship and God’s worship is epitomized by the visions of Babylon the harlot in 17:1-19:10 (cf. also 2:20-22,) and New Jerusalem the bride in 21:9-22:9. Bauckham writes,

The message of these two visions is emphasized by their parallel conclusions (19:10; 22:8-9), which enable John to end both with the injunction ‘Worship God!’ The angel’s refusal of worship reinforces the point: Do not worship the beast, do not even worship God’s servants the angels, worship God! p. 135

Chapter five describes the role of the Spirit of God in Revelation. According to Bauckham, the Holy Spirit’s purpose, through John’s Revelation, is not to foretell future events but to enable the Christians in the seven churches (representative of whole Church in the last days) to be Christ’s witnesses to the world, seeing their present circumstances from the perspective of the future. Bauckham writes,

…This could only be done by directing their sight and their lives toward the coming of the Lord. The point was not so much to enable them to foresee the future as to enable them to see their present from the perspective of the future. p. 172

The prayer for the Parousia is at the heart of Christian living according to the Apocalypse. Christian life must be lived under the Spirit’s direction towards the eschatological future out of which the Lord is coming. p. 172

He then challenges us by stating,

The story of the witnesses [(Revelation 11:3-13)] is to be read neither as simple prediction (history written in advance) nor as allegory (history or future history written in code symbols). Rather it is a story through which the churches are to perceive imaginatively, through the perspective granted them by the Spirit, their vocation, and their destiny. Like 22:17, the story functions as a summons towards the eschatological future. It is not so much a story which predicts the future as a story which creates the future. P. 172

In a theme Bauckham returns to several times in Climax of Prophecy, he writes,

Bearing the witness of Jesus is a matter of sharing ‘in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance’ (1:9): it leads to suffering, rejection, and death. p. 172

The eschatological perspective alone creates the paradox in which the invitation to new life is also, so it must have seemed in the churches of Asia in the nineties, a summons to death. p. 173

He says that this view should not lead to nihilism and a meaningless life. Rather, our present takes meaning from Christ’s finished work (1:5-6; 5:9,) His everlasting life (1:18,) and His imminent return (22:12.) His sacrifice for us, “provides the model for positively living towards the Parousia.” Bauckham writes,

The followers of the Lamb must follow His way through death to life (cf. 14:4), and in so doing they may know that it is the way through death to life primarily because it was so for Him. p. 173

He then says something startling about the witnesses of Revelation 11.

Any and every city, in whose streets the corpses of the witnesses lie, is thereby identified, its character seen in the Spirit, as Sodom and Egypt. The value of this identification as part of the Spirit’s message to the churches is that it enables them to characterize situations of conflict in their true perspective, to distinguish appearances from underlying reality, to see through the apparent success of the hostile world and the apparent failure of faithful witness. p. 173

In the chapter titled, “The Lion, the Lamb, and the Dragon,” Bauckham says that John’s visions were meant to, “promote spiritual insight. They were to manifest that most important characteristic of symbols, namely their power to direct our thinking and our orientation towards life.” p. 176

As an example, he says John hears that,

Jesus Christ is the Lion of Judah and the Root of David [(5:5,)] but John ‘sees’ him as the Lamb [(5:6)]. Precisely by juxtaposing these contrasting images, John forges a symbol of conquest by sacrificial death, which is essentially a new symbol. p. 183

The fact that Christ is the Lamb of God was well known (John 1:29,36; Acts 8:32; 1 Cor 5:7; 1 Pet 1:19). So was His victory through death (Col 2:15). The novelty, Bauckham writes, of,

John’s symbol lies in its representation of the sacrificial death of Christ as the fulfilment of Jewish hopes of the messianic conqueror. p. 184

He goes on to say that this perspective becomes the way to understand the Old Testament war visions and symbols in the new light of Revelation.

Bauckham calls attention to “The Eschatological Earthquake” in chapter seven. He defines it as both a shaking of the heavens and the earth, naming the former a “cosmic quake.” Also, it is a symbol of divine intervention, judgment, God’s presence, and vindication of the people of God. He writes,

Both 6:12-17 and 20:11 are explicitly passages in which the earthquake accompanies the theophany of God the Judge. Moreover, in these two cases John employs the tradition of the cosmic quake, in which the heavens as well as the earth flee from God’s presence. p. 209

Delving deeper into these verses, he writes,

The first passage echoes several Old Testament descriptions of the Day of the Lord. The second seems to include the notion of the destruction of the old cosmos to be replaced by the new (cf. 21:1). The first passage refers, and is the first reference in Revelation, to the same final earthquake to which 8:5; 11:13,19; 16:18 also refer. In the case of 20:11, however, the earthquake is located on the far side of the millennium [(20:1-10)]. p. 209

Bauckham notes that, like “the bride adorned for the eschatological marriage” and “the gathering of the nations to battle,” John uses the cosmic quake image twice, on either side of the millennium (20:1-10.) He then conjectures,

…It may be that the whole sequence 19:11-20:15 should be seen as another instance of John’s method of expanding earlier images in later visions. Just as the seven last plagues are summed up in 11:19, so perhaps 19:11-20:15 does not take us on beyond the earlier images of the End but expands them. The clearest indication of this would be the echo in 20:11 of earlier earthquake descriptions in 6:14 and 16:20. The vision of the sixth seal may then be intended already to point forward as far as the Last Judgment. p. 209

Provocatively, Bauckham examines “The Apocalypse as a Christian War Scroll” in chapter eight. He writes, “John reinterprets the holy war traditions and makes the warfare metaphorical rather than literal.” p. 213 As he wrote in, “The Lion, the Lamb, and the Dragon,” here he writes,

Jesus the Messiah has already defeated evil by sacrificial death. He…won a victory, but by sacrifice, not military conflict, and he has delivered God’s people, but they are from all nations, not only Jews. The continuing and ultimate victory of God over evil which the rest of John’s prophecy describes is the outworking of His decisive victory won on the cross. p. 215

Bauckham also interprets 7:14, against most other commentators, as,

…Those whom the Lamb’s sacrificial death has ransomed from all nations (5:9) share in His victory through martyrdom. Against most of the commentators, this must be the meaning of 7:14. p. 228

The messianic army is an army of martyrs who triumph through their martyrdom because they are followers of the Lamb who participate in His victory by following His path to death. p. 230

The consequence, he says, is not setting aside Israel’s hopes for eschatological triumph, but, instead,

The Lamb really does conquer, though not by force of arms, and His followers really do share His victory, though not by violence. The combination of the Lamb and the 144,000 conveys the sense that there is a holy war to be fought, but to be fought and won by sacrificial death. p. 230

Not only is this response operative for the first century but for us and our children. Bauckham writes, “The message is not, ‘Do not resist!,’ so much as, ‘Resist—but by witness and suffering, not by violence.’” p. 236.

It becomes clear that the change of perspective from earth to heaven and present circumstances to the Parousia that Bauckham explains in chapter five, “The Spirit of God in Revelation,” is the way to understand victory in this holy war. He writes,

From the earthly perspective it is obvious that the beast has defeated the martyrs (11:7; 13:7). To ‘those who dwell on earth’ — people who see things from an earthly perspective — the power of the beast seems supreme and irresistible, and this is why they worship him. ‘Who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?’ (13:4). p. 236

…From a heavenly perspective, things look quite different. From this perspective the martyrs are the real victors. To be faithful in bearing the witness of Jesus even to the point of death is not to become a helpless victim of the beast, but to take the field against him and win. p. 236

He sums it up as,

The martyrs conquer not by their suffering and death as such, but by their faithful witness to the point of death (cf. 12:11). Their witness to the truth prevails over the lies and deceit of the devil and the beast. For those who reject this witness, it becomes legal testimony against them, securing their condemnation. This negative function of witness is present in Revelation. But it entails also a positive possibility: that people may be won from illusion to truth. p. 237

In chapter nine, “The Conversion of the Nations,” Bauckham relates his insight into the opened scroll,

…The distinctive new message of the scroll: the divine intention that ‘the shattering of the power of the holy people’ (Dan. 12:7) will prove salvific for the nations. p. 301

He calls the story of the two witnesses (11:3-13,) which immediately follows John’s eating the scroll, a kind of parable. He says,

[The] two individual prophets represent the prophetic witness to which the whole church is called in the final period of world history, the 1260 days (11:3) p. 301

Bauckham explains his thesis this way,

The church’s role of witness is appropriately portrayed by a story about two prophets. Just as it would be a mistake to take the story literally, so it would also be a mistake to take it in too strictly allegorical a way, as though, for example, the sequence of events in the career of the two witnesses were intended to correspond to a sequence of events in the history of the church. The story is more like a parable, which dramatizes the nature and result of the church’s prophetic witness to the nations. Because it is a parable, it can be taken less as a straightforward prediction than as a call to the churches to play the role which God intends for them. p. 301

He says that the witnesses call to repentance proves more effective than judgments alone (p. 301.) However, he says, “it does so only as a result of the martyrdom and vindication of the witnesses.” p. 301

This, Bauckham says, is the way to understand Daniel’s prophecies. He writes,

Daniel’s prophecies of ‘the shattering of the power of the holy people’ (12:7), the giving over of the holy place to be trampled (8:13; cf. Rev 11:2), and the defeat of the saints by the beast (Dan 7:21; cf. Rev 11:7) are understood as indicating the way in which other Old Testament prophecies of the conversion of all the nations to the worship of the true God are to be fulfilled. p. 303

However, he writes, “This is intelligible only as the way in which the followers of the Lamb participate in [Christ’s] victory, won by His faithful witness, death, and vindication, and so [gives] that victory universal effect.” p. 303 Bauckham writes, “the role which the church’s suffering witness is to play in the conversion of the nations is the content of the scroll which the Lamb’s victory qualified him to open.” p. 303

If we accept Bauckham’s view, then,

The eternal gospel is therefore the call which Psalm 96 itself contains, the call to all nations to worship the one true God who is coming to judge the world and to establish His universal rule. p. 305

He sums up his view by writing,

The immediate effect of the Lamb’s own victory was that His bloody sacrifice redeemed a people for God. But the intended ultimate effect is that this people’s participation in His sacrifice, through martyrdom, wins all the peoples for God. This is how God’s universal kingdom comes and the concluding verse of the song of Moses is fulfilled: ‘The Lord will reign forever and ever’ (Exod. 15:18). p. 307

The rest of Revelation expands on this theme of the church’s witness, setting it in a broader context and elaborating on its results. p. 303

Before closing out the chapter, Bauckham addresses the problem of universal salvation implied by God’s universal kingdom. He writes,

Revelation seems to offer only two possibilities for the nations: repentance, fear of God, genuine worship of God (11:13; 14:6; 15:4) or persistence in worshipping the beast, refusal to repent, refusal to worship, cursing of God, final opposition to God’s rule, leading to final judgment (14:9-11; 16:9, 11, 21; 17:14; 19:17-21). p. 310

Therefore, the same judgments, modelled on the plagues of Egypt and culminating in an earthquake, characterize the witness and vindication of the two witnesses (11:6, 13) and the seven last plagues (16:2-21). In the first case, they lead to the worship of God, in the second the response is cursing of God. p. 310

He then spotlights the apparently contradictory dichotomy posed by the two witnesses and seven last plagues,

We do not take the images seriously if we allow either to qualify the other. The picture of universal judgment does not mean that the picture of the universal worship of God is not to be taken fully seriously, nor does the picture of the universal worship of God mean that the picture of universal judgment is not to be taken fully seriously. Because Revelation deals in images, it does not make the kind of statements which have to be logically compatible in order to be valid. p. 310

It is no part of the purpose of John’s prophecy to preempt this choice by predicting the degree of success the witness of the martyrs will have. One thing is certain: God’s kingdom will come. p. 310

Driving home the consequences for rejecting the church’s faithful witness and God’s call to repentance, he writes,

[Verses] 15:5-19:21 show how the refusal to heed the church’s witness hardens the world’s opposition to God into a final climactic attempt to oppose the coming of God’s kingdom. They also show how witness to the truth becomes evidence against those who reject it, the evidence which judges them. This is why the martyrs form the Lamb’s army (17:14; 19:14) when he wages war with sword of His mouth (19:15), i.e., the evidence of His own faithful witness, continued by His followers, becomes His word of judgment on those who finally reject it. p. 310

Finally, summing up the chapter, Bauckham writes,

…The sacrificial death of the Lamb and the prophetic witness of His followers are God’s strategy for winning all the nations of the world from the dominion of the beast to His own kingdom. p. 337

In chapter ten, “The Economic Critique of Rome in Revelation,” Bauckham explains Rev. 17:3 as the Roman civilization riding on the back of Roman military power. He writes,

From John’s Jewish Christian perspective, the political religion of Rome was the worst kind of false religion since it absolutized Rome’s claim on her subjects and cloaked her exploitation of them in the garb of religious loyalty. Thus, for John, Rome’s economic exploitation and the corrupting influence of her state religion go hand in hand. p. 348

Bauckham frames Rome’s indictment as all-encompassing and highlights John’s portrayal of evil Roman society. He writes,

The accusation recurs, this time with a judicial image, in 18:24: ‘in her was found the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slain on earth.’ Here the prophets and saints are the Christian martyrs, and many commentators understand ‘all who have been slain on earth’ also as Christian martyrs, but this is not the natural sense, and it robs the verse of its climax. Rome is indicted not only for the martyrdom of Christians, but also for the slaughter of all the innocent victims of its murderous policies. The verse expresses a sense of solidarity between the Christian martyrs and all whose lives were the price of Rome’s acquisition and maintenance of power. p. 349

Like every society which absolutizes its own power and prosperity, the Roman empire could not exist without victims. Thus, John sees a connection between Rome’s economic affluence, Rome’s idolatrous self-deification, and Rome’s military and political brutality. The power of his critique of Rome — perhaps the most thoroughgoing critique from the period of the early empire—lies in the connection it portrays between these various facets of Rome’s evil. p. 349

This critique is obviously applicable to every world empire including ours and the next one on the horizon.

Then, Bauckham makes a significant observation on Rome’s fall. He writes,

Revelation most often portrays the fall of Rome as vengeance for the death of the Christian martyrs (16:6; 18:24; 19:2; cf. 18:6). But this is certainly not the whole story: God’s judgment of Rome is also attributed to her slaughter of the innocent in general (18:24; cf. 18:6), her idolatrous arrogance (18:8), and her self-indulgent luxury at the expense of her empire (18:7). p. 350

Subsequently, he makes a wry and convicting observation concerning John’s readers. Bauckham writes,

…It is not unlikely that John’s readers would include merchants and others whose business or livelihood was closely involved with the Roman political and economic system. For such readers John has set a kind of hermeneutical trap.

Any reader who finds himself sharing the perspective of Rome’s mourners—viewing the prospect of the fall of Rome with dismay — should thereby discover, with a shock, where he stands, and the peril in which he stands.

And for such readers, it is of the utmost significance that, prior to the picture of the mourners, comes the command: ‘Come out of her my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues’ (18:4). p. 376

Reinvoking the themes of, “a call to radical dissociation from structural evil” (introduction) and “sharing ‘in Jesus the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance’ (1:9) [leading] to suffering, rejection, and death” (chapter 5,) Bauckham notes,

John’s critique of Rome therefore did more than voice the protest of groups exploited, oppressed, and persecuted by Rome. It also required those who could share in her profits to side with her victims and become victims themselves.

But those who, from the perspective of the earth and the sea were Rome’s victims, John saw from the perspective of heaven to be the real victors. Hence his account of the fall of Babylon climaxes not in the laments of the kings, the merchants, and the mariners, but in the joyful praises of the servants of God in heaven (19: 1-8). p. 378

In the final chapter, “Nero and the Beast,” Bauckham says that Revelation says nothing explicitly about Nero, but likely alludes to his persecution (Rev 17:6; 18:24; 19:2; cf. 6:9-10.) He conjectures,

We can well imagine that John would have seen the historical Nero as the figure in whom the imperial power had so far shown most clearly its antichristian tendency: as self-deifying absolutism which sets itself against God and murders His witnesses (cf. 11:7; 13:5-7). The impending confrontation between the beast and the followers of the Lamb would appear to John as an apocalyptic extension and intensification of the Neronian persecution. p. 421

Again, against prevailing opinion, Bauckham separates the accounts in chapters 13 and 17 from each other. He writes,

John has constructed a history for the beast which parallels that of Christ. The beast, like Christ, has his death, his resurrection, and his parousia. This has not hitherto been recognized, because exegetes who recognize the influence of the Nero legend on chapters 13 and 17 have supposed that the healing of the beast’s mortal wound in chapter 13 must be the same event as the beast’s coming up from the abyss in chapter 17. They have supposed this because they have assumed that the Nero legend controls John’s thinking…On any showing it is clear that John has reworked the Nero legend freely for his own purposes. p. 444

…In chapter 13 the beast’s recovery from his mortal wound consolidates the imperial power of Rome, whereas in chapter 17 the beast’s return from the abyss is a threat to the empire which leads to the destruction of its capital. p. 444

…John’s account of the beast is not just an imaginative creation. It is a theological reading of the history and future of the Roman Empire of his day. He was not simply projecting the theme of Christological parody onto the empire. He saw certain definite features of the empire as constituting a divine and messianic claim that rivalled Christ’s. p. 446

…The most natural way to read 13:3, 12, 14 is to understand that the mortal wound sustained by Nero (the head) was also a mortal wound to the imperial power as such (the beast) and that it was the imperial power, not Nero himself, which recovered. p. 446

Summing up both his final chapter and his commentary, Bauckham writes,

…As we have seen, the Christological parody corresponds to real features of the history of the empire, to the character of the imperial cult, and to contemporary expectations of the future of the empire. It is a profound prophetic interpretation of the contemporary religio-political image of the empire, both in Rome’s own propaganda and in its subjects’ profoundest responses to Roman rule.

This religio-political ideology, which John sees as a parody of the Christian claims about Christ, was no mere cover for the hard political realities: it entered deeply into the contemporary dynamics of power as they affected the lives of John’s contemporaries. He sees it as a deification of power. The empire’s success is founded on military might and people’s adulation of military might.

By these standards Christ and the martyrs are the unsuccessful victims of the empire. Instead of worshipping the risen Christ who has won His victory by suffering witness to the truth, the world worships the beast whose ‘resurrection’ is the proof that this military might is invincible.

The parallel between the ’death’ and ‘resurrection’ of the beast and the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ poses the issue of what is truly divine. Is it the beast’s apparent success which is worthy of religious trust and worship? Or is the apparent failure of Christ and the martyrs the true witness to the God who can be ultimately trusted and may alone be worshipped? p. 452

Dear reader, I trust you know who is victorious and is worthy of worship. I urge you to see our times as similar to those of first century Rome and act accordingly.

In light of Bauckham’s message, I continue to be amazed at the bravery of Pastor Wang Yi, who prepared his flock for persecution, challenged the society he lived in, and now suffers for the Gospel in prison (release date set for 2028.) He demonstrates foresight, planning, and integrity. He has posted ninety-five theses to call the China house churches and the global churches “to have courage, perseverance, humility, and wisdom in the days ahead.” Please read the subtitles of this video. Very challenging and life changing.

Die! – Pastor Wang Yi, 6:42, YouTube, Preached on November 26, 2017, Wang Yi Sermon Clips 王怡牧师讲道短

Why Pray?

In my discussions with friends and foes, I am asked, “Why do you bother following such depressing news?” My answer is twofold. First, the Lord said:

“…You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times.” Matthew 16:2–3 English Standard Version

Therefore, I read and study the signs of the times in which we live. And second, I want to understand these times in the same spirit as the Tribe of Issachar,

“…Men who had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do…1 Chronicles 12:32 ESV

With them, I ask, what are we to do? Incidentally, Issachar’s territory incorporated the valley of Megiddo.

As a result of my studies, I’ve concluded, we must pray. The main reason to pray in our circumstances comes from Paul’s remark in his Letter to the Ephesians:

Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the schemes of the devil. For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand firm. Ephesians 6:11–13, ESV

Clearly, no action in our flesh can prevail in this warfare.

Relative to this struggle, Albert Barnes comments on Daniel’s prayers that are recorded in the Book of Daniel, chapter 10. In this chapter, Daniel discovers that the answers to his prayers are the result of angelic warfare. Barnes has some surprising insights into Daniel’s prayer and the answer he receives. He says in regard to verse 13:

…The great truth is, that the answer to prayer is often delayed, not by any indisposition on the part of God to answer it, and not by any purpose not to answer it, and not by the mere intention of trying our faith, but “by the necessary arrangements to bring it about.”

[Prayer] is of such a nature that it cannot be answered at once. It requires time to make important changes; to influence the minds of men; to remove obstacles; to raise up friends; to put in operation agencies that shall secure the thing desired. There is some obstacle to be overcome. There is some plan of evil to be checked and stayed. There is some agency to be used which is not now in existence, and which is to be created.

The opposition of the “prince of Persia” could not be overcome at once, and it was necessary to bring in the agency of a higher power – that of Michael – to effect the change. This could not be done in a moment, a day, or a week, and hence, the long delay of three “full weeks” before Daniel had an assurance that his prayers would be answered.

So, it often happens now. We pray for the conversion of a child; yet there may be obstacles to his conversion, unseen by us, which are to be patiently removed, and perhaps by a foreign influence, before it can be done. Satan may have already secured a control over his heart, which, is to be broken gradually, before the prayer shall be answered.

We pray for the removal of the evils of intemperance, of slavery, of superstition, of idolatry; yet these may be so interlocked with the customs of a country, with the interests of men, and with the laws, that they cannot be at once eradicated except by miracle, and the answer to the prayer seems to be long delayed.

We pray for the universal spread of the gospel of Christ; yet how many obstacles are to be overcome, and how many arrangements made, before this prayer can be fully answered; and how many tears are to be shed, and perils encountered, and lives sacrificed, before the prayer of the church shall be fully answered, and the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the Lord.

The duty, then, which is taught, is that of patience, of perseverance, of faith in God, of a firm belief that he is true to all his promises, and that he is a hearer of prayer – though the blessing seems long delayed.

Daniel prayed earnestly for the restoration of his people to their land and received an answer that far surpassed his request. His desire was pure. However, we must check our motives if we are to expect answers. James cautions:

You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? James 4:2b–4a, ESV

However, if our motives are in line with His commandments, then, whatever the request might be, John reminds us:

And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us in whatever we ask, we know that we have the requests that we have asked of him. 1 John 5:14–15, ESV

Then, like Daniel, we persevere and wait patiently, with trust in God, for the answer to come.

I must leave you with a sermon by Pastor Wang Yi. On December 30th, 2019, Pastor Wang Yi was tried in a secret trial and sentenced to 9 years in prison for the crimes of “inciting to subvert state power” and “illegal business operations.” His sermon is titled, “Persecution is a Test.” Unless you understand Mandarin, please read the subtitles; I think it’s worth the effort.

Persecution is a Test 逼迫是一种测试 – Pastor Wang Yi 王怡牧师, YouTube, Posted January 29, 2019, Preached October 10, 2018, Wang Yi Sermon Clips 王怡牧师讲道短片

Witness, Endurance, and Suffering

The United States of America may be losing its freedoms faster than we expected. What should those who profess Christ as Lord and Savior do?

Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C. – Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication

G. K. Beale, in his introduction to his book, Revelation – A Shorter Commentary, tells us several important things for the times ahead. He says,

John’s readers live in a worldly culture which makes sin seem normal and righteousness appear strange.

The focus of the revelation John received from God is how the church is to conduct itself in the midst of an ungodly world.

Believers are faced with the choice of lining [up] their lives and conduct…with one perspective or the other, and their eternal destiny depends on that choice.

Believers are always facing the threat of compromise in one form or another. They must submit to the message as John has brought it, or face God’s judgment.

As such, the message of the letter is of relevance and value to all believers of all ages, which is why the vision was given to John.

Our way of witness to and suffering for the gospel parallels that of our Lord. Beale explains this truth this way,

The analogy of a chess game is also appropriate. The sacrificial move of Christ at the cross puts the devil in checkmate (deals him a mortal wound); the devil continues to play the game of rebellion, but his defeat is assured.

This is an important theme of John’s vision, which seeks to assure believers going through difficult circumstances that God is with them and will faithfully bring them through to final victory.

The church is identified also with Christ as a priest and now exercises its role as priests by maintaining a faithful witness to the world and willingness to suffer for Christ. It defeats the strategies of the enemy even while suffering apparent defeat, yet still ruling in a kingdom (as Christ did on the cross).

Beale also explains how he understands the book. He says,

In Rev. 1:1, John deliberately uses the language of “signify” from Dan. 2:45 portray that what God has been showing him is likewise symbolic. Most of the things that are about to unfold are not to be taken literally (lions, lambs, beasts, women, etc.), but each refers symbolically to another reality or set of realities….The reader is to expect that the main means of divine revelation in this book is symbolic.

Beale says of his approach to the book of Revelation,

We believe the Redemptive – Historical Idealist view is substantially correct but must be modified in light of the fact that parts of Revelation do definitely refer to future end – time events concerning the return of Christ, His final defeat of the enemy, and the establishment of His heavenly kingdom.

There is great comfort to be had from the book of Revelation. In fact, the book itself says,

Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near. Revelation 1:3 (English Standard Version)

Another thing to do is to learn from the experience of our brothers and sisters in China’s house churches. Hannah Nation and S. E. Wang’s Grace to the City: Studies in the Gospel from China is a good place to start.

Reading Pastor Wang Yi’s essay titled, “Wang Yi’s 14 Decisions: In the Face of Persecution, What Will I Do?,” posted two months before he was arrested by authorities for preaching the gospel, and other posts on that blog are yet another way to benefit from our brothers’ and sisters’ experience.

In times like these, I go back to this,

O Lord, I have heard the report of you,
    and your work, O Lord, do I fear.
In the midst of the years revive it;
    in the midst of the years make it known;
    in wrath remember mercy.

Habakkuk 3:2 (English Standard Version)

Whether we “Build Back Better” or “Keep America Great,” God is sovereign and will lead His people through the trials ahead. Our duty is to witness openly and not compromise with the world in the face of suffering.

If Xi Jinping does not repent he will perish! – Pastor Wang Yi, September 10, 2018, YouTube, Wang Yi Sermon Clips