Hope for Today in the Apocalyptic of the Book of Revelation: Patristic Readings of Revelation

Richard Bauckham’s two books on the book of Revelation, The Theology of the Book of Revelation and The Climax of Prophecy are both excellent (which is an understatement)! I just started a new book (which I will take some time getting through it as I can) called Apocalyptic Thought In Early Christianity (Holy Cross Studies in Patristic Theology and History) edited by Robert J. bannerpantocratorDaly, SJ. The first chapter I have encountered is entitled: “I Know Your Works”: Grace and Judgment in the Apocalypse and is written by Theodore Stylianopoulos. As is usual for me study of the book of Revelation, if done right, evokes excitement and wonder. Stylianopoulos’s chapter, even as we are just getting started, is getting off on the right foot!*

I think the theme of Revelation that challenges and excites me the most is the idea of the holiness of God, and that He is Pantokrator (Παντοκράτωρ), ‘Almighty.’ The idea that within that reality we are faced with two kingdoms (no, not of the sort that we get from the so called Escondido Theology), or to get more Augustinian (even though Stylianopoulos does not), with two cities: The City of God juxtaposed with The City of Man.

As Bauckham does so well in his books, he develops this theme found in the book of Revelation: i.e. the theme that God’s kingdom in Christ trumps the kingdoms of this world; and in the book of Revelation, in historical context, the Roman world and its kingdom. As Bauckham underscores, what the book of Revelation is doing, by its appeal to apocalyptic language and imagery, is showing these early Christians (and now us later ones too) through evocative and picturesque language that, indeed, Rome is not it. It is showing the Christians, that while their most immediate experience seems pressing, with all of its visceral and experienced realities, including martyrdom for Christ, that this is not the final reality, or even the total present reality. That standing above and over the City of Man is the City of God, where the King of kings and Lord of lords rules, and is coming from to vindicate the martyrs persecuted for His name. It is this type of apocalyptic reality that I have found hopeful (because God is God and He is Almighty even when it might not look like it), and it is this reality that Stylianopoulos’ further provides layering for as he writes about the choices that the Christian has in the Roman context of whether they are going to serve Caesar as lord, or the living Lord of apocalyptic reality as Lord. If the Christian follows the latter, according to Stylianopoulos, it will look decidedly different than what it looks like to follow Caesar as lord; and it might even eventuate in death. Stylianopoulos writes:

For the seer, there is no room for compromise. The choice is either between Rome and its works (Rev. 18:6) or Christ and his works (Rev. 2:26). The two ways are irreconcilable. Rome’s ways are marked by self-glorification (“goddess Roma”), wealth, luxury, and prosperity by which it deceives and corrupts the nations while concealing its abominations of violence, injustice, wantonness, lies, and slavery (Rev. 18:1–19). Not least, Rome is accountable to God for the blood of the saints who are killed for resisting its idolatrous practices. To follow Rome, as the “earth- dwellers” do, is to participate in its abominations of murder, sorcery, immorality, thefts, all motivated by the worship of demons (Rev. 9:20–21). Thus the saints are commanded: “Come out of her, my people, lest you take part in her sins, lest you share in her plagues” (Rev. 18:4). This call, of course, is not for physical withdrawal but for a distinctly countercultural way of life in the midst of Greco-Roman society. In contrast, Christ’s way is the way of the slain Lamb bearing testimony to God’s truth and achieving victory through suffering and death. To follow the slain Lamb, as the saints do, is to participate in Jesus’ witness to God’s word and in Jesus’ suffering because of their own witness and suffering in active resistance to the prevailing culture. The assumption is that to live as a Christian is to live in the world and not apart from it. However, the choice provokes conflict and entails suffering, even the prospect of death (Rev. 13:9–10). The supreme ideal is symbolized by the 144,000 martyrs who stand victorious and sing praises before God’s throne. The recurrent calls for faithfulness to God and the Lamb, and the exhortations to patient endurance to the point of death, signify that for the author of the Apocalypse the greatest commendable work is martyrdom itself.[1]

Conclusion

There are many directions we could take all of this, but let me close it this way. In light of the horrific events of November 13th in Paris it would be easy to reduce the evil that we saw on the streets there to the ISIS combatants that executed so many people. But when we consider what we find in the book of Revelation, in its theological implications, what becomes clear is that it isn’t just ISIS, but that it is the kingdoms of this world (including France, Europe in toto, USA, Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, Switzerland, etc., etc.) that represent the City of Man in total; the ‘city’ or ‘kingdom’ that stands against the purposes of God and His kingdom in Christ. This does not mean that God does not providentially use (see Rev. 17) the kingdoms of this world to make sure that justice is wrought (Rom. 13). This does not mean that there aren’t clear and bright lines between evil and good (in a relative sense). But what it does mean is that even “good” intentions apart from participation in Christ’s goodness aren’t really good at all. It means that things are quite complicated, and that there is an undercurrent for prestige and power even among countries that appear to be ‘good.’ And as Christians if we desire to live and stand for righteousness in Jesus Christ, that ultimately this will place us at cross-purposes even with the ostensibly good countries in the world. In fact, as we bear witness to Christ it will expose the darkness that underwrites the power present in every human government.

But there is hope, and this is why I enjoy the book of Revelation so much! It shows that while the Beastly kingdoms have their ways, so too does the Kingdom of Christ. And even when things appear one way, as if the Beast, the kingdoms of this world are winning, that in reality they have already been crushed by the King of kings, by Jesus Christ!

[1] Theodore Stylianopoulos, “I Know Your Works”: Grace and Judgment in the Apocalypse in Robert J. Daly, SJ, ed., Apocalyptic Thought In Early Christianity (Holy Cross Studies in Patristic Theology and History) (Baker Publishing Group, 2009), 35 Scribd version.

*One critique I have of Stylianopoulos’s essay is that he presumes, in Protestant speak, an Arminian maintenance idea of salvation. In other words, he appears to hold that ‘works’ and ‘conquering’ in the book of Revelation indicate that even though we have been given a glorious gift in salvation through Christ, that it remains possible for the believer to lose this gift. Stylianopoulos is a Greek Orthodox, so rather than reading things through an Arminian lens, what really is bearing on his view in this regard is his Orthodoxy. This disagreement notwithstanding, his commentary on the idea of ‘works and judgment’ in the book of Revelation still bears some good fruit.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in Biblical Studies, Biblical Theology, Eschatology, Patristic, Patristic Theology. Bookmark the permalink.