Is your church worshiping the Beast, or just avoiding an uncomfortable tension in truths...
Confusing for many within the context of liberal democracies is how national entities often act in opposition to the gospel, or the revealed will of God, yet just as often in a unsuspecting manner. Empires and governments are often identified in Scripture as the very instruments of wrath through which the divine plan is accomplished. Empire is a constant fact of scriptural context, and it is through empire and human authority that God’s true power is thought to be, or interpreted to be, revealed. Whether in the plagues against Pharaoh or through the destruction of the two kingdoms by Assyria and Babylon, judgment is often carried out through the enterprises of military might, unjust empires, and outright persecution of the righteous. Even in non-apocalyptic literature, judgment of God’s own people comes at the hands of the unjust, the mockers of God, the powers and principalities of this world.
Charry regards this as a “source of anxiety reflected in the apocalyptic expectations of conflict and suffering built into the gospel itself.” She finds that the belief that God will punish God’s own people through the use of malevolent entities such as Babylon or Rome is a tension that often frustrates attempts to make sense of the apocalyptic lack of middle ground. However, this is more of an indicator that it is only in apocalyptic community that alternative responses to historic crisis is found. This is true in spite of the order that has been maintained by empire, which is revealed to be sinful and in opposition to kingdom ethics.
What we find in Christian apocalyptic, and in books like Daniel, is that the people of God must serve as good citizens, but are always called to be kingdom citizens first and foremost. It is in God’s faithful assemblies that the true nature of empire and secular authorities is revealed as sinful, idolatrous, and founded upon the violence that is antithetical to the salvation that emerges from the cross. Like Daniel before it, the Revelation to John is in fact a “counter-cultural subversion of both Roman and Judaic claims of truth and power,” which not only reveals that Christ is king, but that any claims made to the contrary are anti-Christ and therefore a threat to God’s truth being fully revealed and grasped.24
According to apocalyptic, even, if not especially, those churches that claim Jesus is Lord are also at risk of judgment if they fail to recognize the that eschaton is at hand. Apocalyptic calls the church to repentance as much as it calls the church to reveal new responses to sin. The tone of Revelation shows that all congregations are not the same, nor is their witness, nor are their understandings of the gospel. Most often, contemporary congregations cannot be categorized as apocalyptic or otherwise, and may often feel targeted by apocalyptic witness. This places people of faith in often difficult positions, if not in outright opposition to apocalyptic claims of an eschaton. 25 The Revelation to John provides evidence that, even within seventy years of the resurrection, “worshipping the Beast was something many of John’s Christian readers were tempted to do, or were actually doing.”26
This identification of the religious community at large as complicit in evil is an early aspect of the Christian gospel. “Jesus predicted that judgment would fall on the nation in general and on Jerusalem in particular. That is to say, he reinterprets standard Jewish belief in terms of a coming judgment that would fall on impenitent Israel. The great prophets had done the same.” Jesus, however, was not simply a second-temple prophet that reignited the flames of judgment inaugurated by the prophets of old. He was in fact following the lead of his contemporary, John the Baptist.27
The very roots of Christian faith are not only found in eschatological hope and an apocalyptic overturning of both sociopolitical and religious standard truth claims; they are found to originate in the very roots of Israelite hope and faith. There is to be revealed not only that sin can be crouching at our very door, but that the history of God promises that new ways of identifying and overcoming sin are to be revealed. Because this God has always acted to save creation, we are assured this God will do so again. Our hope lays in our past, yet the manner in which we make sense of both past and present must be revealed consistently and in new ways. Jesus of Nazareth is the standard through which Christians consistently reveal the truth, which is by non-violent truth telling, even as we risk suffering.
24. Ibid., 166.
25. Charry writes that “according to the Apocalypse, Christ desires a militant church
that will absorb suffering rather than accommodate the powers that be. Indeed, to preach
Christ by employing the same tactics as the Beast would give Rome the victory.” John
confronts his audience, especially Laodicea, about what is lacking in their witness to the
cosmic victory that Jesus claims over Rome. John cites that complacency, or perhaps even
complicity is the result of their failure to confront the evil that Jesus reveals is inherent in
the Roman empire. Some Christians were surrounded by Pagans and lost their grip on
the gospel’s demand to be radically separate from the culture at hand. Other Christians
seemed bound to the economic security and stability offered by maintaining ties to Roman
authority, and seemed reticent to reject Rome as an evil entity. “In light of Philippians
2:10–11, we can see that confessing the name of Jesus intended to provoke the state.
Jesus Christ was the proper threat to all counterclaims against divine authority.” Ibid., 166.
26. Bauckham, Theology of the Book of Revelation, 15.