Conquering in Apocalyptic Style

Guest Post by Sam Adams

When we were thinking up possible classes to offer at Kilns College this past Jan-term I came up with the idea to offer a course on the Apocalypse, that is, the book of Revelation. Capitalizing on the cultural fascination with everything “post-apocalyptic” from zombies to dystopian fantasies, the timing seemed right. I called the class, “The Book of Revelation: History, Politics, and Social Justice.”

In preparation for the class, I was frequently asked whether I was ‘post-trib,’ ‘pre-trib,’ or ‘mid-trib.’ If you grew up as I did in the shadow of Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth, or, more recently, in the aftermath of the Left Behind series, these questions seem obvious. (If your only exposure to pop culture’s interpretation of the Apocalypse is the latest offering starring Nicholas Cage–don’t worry, you’re not even on the map!) But, I reminded my friends, that those positions assume the rapture, an event not in the book of Revelation. Go look. It’s not there.

What is there are seven letters to seven churches in Asia Minor? Each church (actual, historic churches, mind you) is told to conquer. Now, if you read the book of Revelation looking for what Christians actually do in the book, you will be hard pressed to find anything remotely resembling what we would think of when we think of conquering. There are no battles where Christians are swinging swords or beating people over the head in some sort of final, holy war. Rather, you see Christians enduring, suffering, praying, remaining faithful, refusing idolatry, removing themselves from Babylon’s (Rome’s) unjust economic system, and bearing faithful witness to the point of death.

This last point is key. In the great heavenly throne room vision in chapters 4 and 5, in the midst of dramatic worship around the throne of God, we are presented with a scroll. The scroll is sealed with seven seals and there is nobody in heaven or on earth or under the earth who is able to open the scroll. No one, that is, until John’s bitter tears are interrupted by a voice. It is one of the elders and he says, “See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered so that he can open the scroll and the seven seals” (5.5b NRSV).

Now we will see conquering. The Lion is here. But—and here is where the surprising transvaluation happens—John looks and sees, not a lion, but a lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered. What he expected was a regal, powerful force who had conquered in the usual way. What he saw was the Lamb slain, the Son of God, the crucified Messiah. What he saw corrects what he heard and implies that conquering is understood according to the faithfulness of the Lamb, a faithfulness even to the point of death.

Note here that the word “slaughtered” in verse 9 (“for you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed…”) is the same word as in the next chapter where, with the coming of the first horseman, we are told that people would “slaughter one another” (6.4). The slaughter that happens to the Lamb is not likely the slaughter of sacrifice, it’s the slaughter/murder that might very well happen to faithful witnesses to God’s kingdom. It’s the slaughter that John expects his churches to be confronted with as they seek to endure faithfully and bear witness in the midst of a hostile empire.

The book of Revelation is resistance literature. It is written to a church struggling to remain faithful in the midst of an imperial power that rules through economic injustice, military might, and hegemonic cultural dominance manifested in the cult of emperor worship, what we might today call ‘nationalism.’

Here’s the rub and why we need Revelation today: the Roman Empire could seem hospitable rather than hostile. The Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, was alluring and welcoming. Because of this, the language and vivid imagery of apocalyptic was needed to shock the churches into a posture of faithful resistance and patient endurance. Today, rather than long for the Pax Americana, John’s apocalypse encourages us to resist the allure of a peace that is not really peace.

The end of history is, after all, in the hands of the one who conquered. The one who conquered is the one slain for his faithful witness. It is in the Lamb’s faithfulness, even to the point of death, that we learn what it means to conquer.

Photo Credit: Marcovdz, Creative Commons

Sam Guest Blogger

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