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How to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

Come out of her, my people…

A passage that rarely gets taken into account in expositions of the “gospel” is John’s vision of three angels in Revelation 14:6-11. The context is important. It comes as part of a visionary interlude between the seven trumpets (8-11) and the seven bowls (15-16). I argued in The Coming of the Son of Man, on intertextual grounds, that the trumpets signal judgment on Israel, the bowls judgment on the nations, culminating in the overthrow of immoral, corrupt, blasphemous Rome. That won’t convince everyone, but in any case the basic narrative shape of chapters 12-14 seems to me clear enough.

An allegory of Christian origins

What we have in this section is an allegory of the origins of the church and the nature of the conflict that it was in. A woman, who is righteous Israel, gives birth to a son who will rule the nations with a rod of iron—not save the nations, rule the nations. The child is threatened by a dragon with seven horned heads, but is taken up into heaven, and the woman flees to the wilderness. The dragon is cast out of heaven, fails in his pursuit of the woman, and goes to make war on the rest of her offspring, who kept the Jewish Law and proclaimed the testimony about Jesus (Rev. 12:7-17). The dragon then summons a beast from the sea—exceeding in monstrosity the beasts of Daniel 7—and gives to it “his power and his throne and great authority” (Rev. 13:2).

The beast is Rome. It is given a blasphemous mouth, allowed to conquer the saints (the righteous people of God, an allusion to Dan. 7:21), and is served by all peoples, with the exception of those whose names were written in the “book of life of the Lamb who was slain” (Rev. 13:5-8). A second beast from the earth, perhaps representing Roman provincial power or the imperial priesthood, deceives the nations of the Greek-Roman oikoumenē into worshipping the image of the beast (Rev. 13:11-18; cf. 12:9).

The current pandemic is seen by many scientists—not by many theologians, ironically—as the “beginning of the birth pains”, not the war but a rumour of the war that the natural order may soon wage against humanity.

John then sees a second crowd of 144,000, this time drawn from across the world controlled by Rome, who have overcome persecution and now stand with the Lamb, who is YHWH’s king, on Mount Zion (Rev. 14:1-5; cf. 7:4-8; Ps. 2:6-9).

Against the backdrop of this war between the beasts of Roman imperial power, inspired by the dragon, Satan, who knows that his time is short (Rev. 12:12), and the other offspring of the woman, John sees an angel flying overhead “with an eternal gospel to proclaim to those who dwell on earth, to every nation and tribe and language and people” (Rev. 14:6).

What is this “gospel”? Not that people are justified by faith in Jesus’ atoning death. Not that God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. Not even that Jesus is King!

It is that the hour of God’s judgment has come.

Therefore, the peoples of the empire should repent of their manifold idolatries, above all their worship of the beast of Roman imperialism, and serve the living God who “made heaven and earth, the sea and the springs of water” (Rev. 14:7).

It is the same “good news” that was proclaimed (euangelizomenoi) to the people of Lystra: “you should turn from these vain things to a living God, who made the heaven and the earth and the sea and all that is in them” (Acts 14:15); and, in effect, to the “men of Athens” (Acts 17:29-31). A number of Gentiles in Thessalonica heard this “gospel” and abandon their idols to “serve the living and true God”—and, critically, to wait for the Son from heaven who would deliver them from the “wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:3, 9-10).

Another angel follows close behind the first, expanding upon the “eternal gospel”: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who made all nations drink the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality” (Rev. 14:8).

Then a third, driving home the personal implications of this judgment. Those who prostrate themselves before the beast of Roman imperialism will suffer the wrath of God that is to be poured out on idolatrous, immoral and unjust nations, in the presence of the Lamb who rules on Mount Zion, along with the vindicated martyrs (Rev. 14:9-11). The apocalyptic imagery is lurid, but this is not “hell”, it is not torment after death. It is the social “pain” of the living who cling to an obsolete civilisation, a profoundly antipathetic empire that has been—or rather will be, from John’s point of view—destroyed by the living God.

The best analogy we have

The fall of Babylon the great, which is Rome, is described in Revelation 18, in the vivid but quite realistic language of Old Testament prophecies against Babylon and Tyre. The city has corrupted the kings of the earth, and the “merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living” (Rev. 18:3). But John sees it in ruins, the haunt of unclean spirits and wild animals.

The kings of the earth stand far off and lament, seeing the smoke of her burning, aghast at the “torment” suffered by the devotees of the beast (Rev. 18:9-10). The merchants of the earth weep over the loss of income from their trade in fine goods, commodities and slaves (Rev. 18:11-17). Shipmasters and sailors—the Richard Bransons of the day—mourn the sudden collapse of their business (Rev. 18:17-20).

Apart from the flood story, this is potentially the best analogy that we have in scripture for the rash of interrelated crises that threaten modern global civilisation. In some ways, it is more appropriate than the flood story, because it is a judgment not just on humanity’s propensity for wickedness and violence but on the post-diluvial compulsion to build monstrous towers of Babel in defiance of the creator God (Gen. 11:1-9). It is a judgment on overweening power, prosperity, expansionism, exploitation, technology, on greed, consumption, decadence, waste, despoliation.

The current pandemic is seen by many scientists—not by many theologians, ironically—as the “beginning of the birth pains”, not the war but a rumour of the war that the natural order may soon wage against humanity (cf. Mk. 13:7-8).

The narrative boundaries must be respected. This is not the war that Jesus predicted. Nor is it the end of the world. But it may be the end of an age, somewhere between the two, and surely we must reckon with the fact that the biblical God, the God of history, has a serious proprietorial interest in what happens to his priestly people at this momentous time.

The gospel of our age

So what should the church do? Not shut up shop. Not fall silent. Not wring its hands woefully. Not bunker down until it all blows over, and then go back to business as usual.

Let’s at least consider the loud call to action that accompanies the announcement of the “good news” (you’d forgotten that this was all about the gospel?) that Rome will fall:

Then I heard another voice from heaven saying, “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues; for her sins are heaped high as heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities.” (Rev. 18:4–5)

In the mouth of the Old Testament prophets this would have been heard as a call to leave Babylon and return to the land (cf. Is. 48:20; 52:11; Jer. 50:8; 51:6, 45; Zech. 2:6, 7). John presumably had in mind a symbolic departure: God’s people were not to take part in the sins of Rome or they would share in her plagues—the plagues of the seven bowls of God’s wrath that would be poured out in due course.

Perhaps then we must say that the living God who made the heavens and the earth, the sea and the springs of water, the forests and the wildernesses, and all the life that is in them, is no longer prepared to overlook the centuries of ignorance (cf Acts 17:30) and has at last remembered the iniquities of modern humanity.

This is the euangelion aiōnion, the gospel of our age—the proclamation that the righteous God is putting things right, much to the alarm of governments, traders and industrialists, and no doubt at great cost to the masses of ordinary people whose lives will be blighted as our world falls apart.

If so, then the word to the church, in the stark terms of this apocalyptic conceit, is to “come out of her”, to disengage quite dramatically and rigorously from the gross iniquities of modern humanity, before it’s too late.

It is time for the church to stop being part of the problem.

Comments

Thank you, Andrew. This is very helpful.

I think that the churches have not been well-served by the translation – going back to early Latin translations, IIRC what I have read about this – of aiōnion as “eternal/everlasting”. I suppose that must have helped, historically, to “power” the theological agenda to distill the message and application of the texts into something that is timeless and unchanging.

Stay well. Your voice is still quite lonely in the wilderness.

Alone in the wilderness is quite a healthy place to be these days

This was a welcome call to action. I will definitely meditate on these things as I am thinking about the subtle impact (idolatry, possession?) the Western way of life has had on me, both for good and ill, and on how I’ve participated in its harmful effects.

Interesting…

Your line:

“If so, then the word to the church, in the stark terms of this apocalyptic conceit, is to “come out of her”, to disengage quite dramatically and rigorously from the gross iniquities of modern humanity, before it’s too late.”

What exactly does this mean? What, in your view, should we be doing at this moment? What specific iniquites should we be disengaging from?

That’s difficult to answer without sounding glib or hypocritical, for all sorts of reasons. But it’s not hard to identify the activities that contribute to global social injustices, to environmental degradation, to climate change.

I suspect much of the disengagement will be symbolic rather than actual. How much is this about averting disaster, how much about expressing the anger and faithfulness of God? Whatever we do, we have to do it for God’s sake, so that he might be perceived, heard, not primarily to score political or ethical points.

I recommend we start by reading ’ Our House is on Fire’ by the Thunberg family.

‘…when our limitless, hyper-competitive society’s CO2 levels reach our outermost atmosphere and literally hits the ceiling, when the law that everything must get bigger, faster, greater is set against our common survival, a new world stands at the door, and that world has never been as close as it now.

Or as far away.

We have already solved the climate crisis. What needs to be done is crystal clear.

All this left to do is make a choice.’

It’s almost as if there is no “eternal” gospel, but rather a gospel of the age for each setting the church finds itself within. It is so hard for evangelicals (abstract gospel-centered people) to envision this.

I know you have written on this, but a fresh question related to us communicating our own euangelion aiōnion in our setting today. The euangelion aiōnion that Jesus and Paul proclaimed had some element of a substituionary role of the Messiah, enduring death in the place of the faithful saints. I think that is a fair statement. If Jesus’s substitutionary death was related to the aiōnion that was ending within Jesus and Paul’s own historical framework, then would you say our own euangelion aiōnion does not need to speak of this “death in our stead” today and how it may apply to us? Are the people of God in subsequent ages/generations not in need of this element that Israel and the faithful churches were in need of in their day? That is what would be so difficult to let go of - if, at least, that is what you suggest, if I read you and your application correctly.

If Jesus’s substitutionary death was related to the aiōnion that was ending within Jesus and Paul’s own historical framework, then would you say our own euangelion aiōnion does not need to speak of this “death in our stead” today and how it may apply to us?

That would be one approach, but I think I would rather put it more positively.

Jesus’ death was a propitiation for the sins of Israel, that Gentiles came to participate in that people for whom Jesus died, and that as a result the family of Abraham not only avoided a final obliteration but came to inherit the nations of the Greek-Roman world. Mostly the New Testament treats the death of Jesus for Gentiles in different terms, but in 1 John 2:2 he is the “propitiation” (hilasmos) not only for “our sins” (Israel’s sins? the church’s sins?) but also for “the sins of the whole world”, so there is some basis for extending the language.

But because we are now a long way beyond that storyline, we might better say that we have the opportunity to become part of the community of God’s people only because, way back, Jesus died for the sins of his people. We are forgiven and justified because we believe in this story and its implications for our own world: we are justified by pistis. God embraces us as members of a people which was redeemed by the faithfulness-unto-death of his Son.

Then, if we wish, we can compress this story and say that Jesus died so that I might enjoy an abundance of life in relationship with the God whom together we serve.

That way we get to have our cake and eat it!

Lots of cake to eat! ;)

But here is the question that then begs for me: Do we need our own messianic substitutionary death within our aiōnion?

There is but one messianic, substitutionary death, I would argue. So perhaps the narrative does change for us - that we don’t need our own aiōnionic messianic death (is that a proper term?), but we rather believe in the messianic storyline of old (including his death) and its implications for our own world.

Yes, I think that would be a good way of putting it all together.