Mud on the Wall: Brainstorming the Apocalypse (XCII)

August 30, 2010

Comparatively speaking, there has been relatively little written about the teaching in the Book of Revelation on mankind, sin and salvation.  That is somewhat odd, though, since there is quite a bit of significance on those doctrinal topics, as we will see momentarily.

Logically, we start with what the book has to say about what is formally called theological anthropology, which, an overview survey of Revelation, the final book in the biblical canon, quickly reveals that it flows in the opposite direction as the Book of Genesis, the front-end bookend of the canon.

What do I mean by that?  In Genesis 1-2, the highpoint of God’s original creation is mankind, made in His image.  Then, in chapter 3, sin, death and the resulting curse are where the idea of “Paradise Lost” began catastrophically for the human race, though the Lord’s plan to “reverse the curse” begins immediately and plays out more and more as the rest of Genesis progresses.  At the other end of the Bible, there is a mirroring effect:  the curse is still very much in effect all the way through Revelation until chapter 20, when the final judgment of human sin takes place.  Finally, in chapter 21, the proclamation that the curse for Adam’s and Eve’s sin is no more is joyous!  In that light, it is no coincidence that quite a bit of the detail in Revelation 21-22—especially 22:1-5—fairly shouts “Paradise Regained… Never to Be Lost Again!”

A couple of details in regard to anthropology worth noting are: 1) the reference to the “souls” (Gk. psuche) under the altar in heaven in 6:9-11 infers that they await the resurrection (see Rev. 20) to be united with their resurrection bodies; and 2) the list of the merchandise in 18:11-13 tragically ends with these words: “human bodies and souls” (HCSB; Gk. somaton kai psuchas anthropon).   Although the reason for the wording is not obvious, it is possible that the point is that the merchants (v. 11) looked only at the bodies of these slaves, for the work they could do, while the Lord’s “revelation” here is that far and away the most important part of these people was the immaterial part—the eternal part—of their beings.

Turning to the topic of sin in the Apocalypse, there is quite a bit to summarize.  From the beginning of the book—the statement that Christ “has set us free from our sins” (1:6)—to the end—the list of those of sinful lifestyles excluded from the eternal city (e.g., “the sorcerers,” “the sexually immoral,” “the murderers,” etc.)—there is so much said in Revelation about sin/sinners that it is impossible for a clear-thinking reader not to conclude that the doctrine of hamartiology (the primary Greek word for “sin” is hamartia) is a very significant focus of the book.  Whether it is as subtle as the wrong priorities of the completely orthodox professing believers in the church at Ephesus (see 2:4-5) or the gross sins of the earth-dwellers who refuse to repent in 9:20-21, sin is sinful—and an abomination before the Lord!

What I consider to be the most intriguing passage that specifically refers to sin in Revelation is 18:4-5: “Then I heard a voice from heaven: ‘Come out of her [i.e., Babylon the Great], My people, so that you will not share in her sins, or receive any of her plagues, for her sins are piled up to heaven, and God has remembered her crimes” (HCSB).  Almost certainly, there is an implication here that Babylon the Great is being judged for reasons similar to that of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11.  However, given that, in the latter chapters of the Apocalypse, the judgment expected to come upon “the earth-dwellers” from the earlier part of the book (see 3:10; 6:10; 8:13) actually is poured out on Babylon the Great (ch. 18, esp. vv. 20, 24), it appears that this statement in 18:4-5 is actually talking about the Siamese twin-like relationship between the demonically-controlled world system (see Eph. 2:2) and “the earth-dwellers” (Rev. 13:8; 17:8).

Also often given “second-class citizen” status theologically in regard to its content in Revelation is the teaching on salvation.  What is usually focused on is the number of references on Christ’s shed “blood.”  In that regard, the fact that the most common reference to Jesus in the Apocalypse is as “the Lamb” likely at least partially looks back to John’s well-known wording in the Fourth Gospel: “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”  Also, we often read of Christ being “the firstborn from the dead,” wrapping up together His triumphant resurrection from the dead and the future resurrection of believers.

It is surprising to some readers to note that the Apocalypse has a great deal to say about the sovereignty of God in regard to salvation.  The “heaven-dwellers”—there portrayed as the heavenly army with “the Lord of lords and King of kings”—are clearly referred as “the elect” in 17:14.  By contrast, the “earth-dwellers” are described as those whose names are not written in “the Lamb’s book of life” (13:8; 17:8)—which is strong wording, but still implies something less than “double predestination.”

It is shocking to many readers to find out that there is actually quite a bit about the message of salvation in Revelation.  The reason for this is that it is not expressed in the kind of simple evangelistic terminology characteristic of the Fourth Gospel—also written by John.  However, the fact that it is “the revelation of Jesus Christ”—probably meaning, at least to some degree, that Jesus is the ultimate author—explains the differences (though it should be pointed out that there are some similarities in themes between the two longest Johannine books.

In regard to those who claim that the “gospel” is not found in the Apocalypse, if nothing else, the fact that the Greek euangelion (“gospel”) is present in 14:6 shows that idea to be mistaken.  In that context, though, the response demanded to “the good news” is “to fear God and glorify Him” (v. 7).  It is that exact response that is referred to in two key contexts, both of which appear to reflect the resulting salvation of many (11:13; 15:2-4).  The other word that appears to offer salvation in Revelation is “repent.”  However, when it is used that way, it is in reference to those who refuse to do so (e.g., 9:20-21; 16:9, 11).

In my view, one of the most striking aspects of the entire book, though, is the “gospel invitation” offered to readers at the very end.  Starting with Revelation 22:14, the issue is made clear: you either “wash your robes” (i.e., in the redemptive blood of the Lamb; see 7:14) or you are excluded  from the eternal city (v. 15).  That is followed immediately by a clear statement about Jesus, the object of faith, (v. 16) which then moves seamlessly into the actual “call to salvation” (v. 17a): “Both the Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come!’ (HCSB; i.e., by faith).”  That the message is made available to all indiscriminately  (i.e., human responsibility—the theological balance to my point on Divine sovereignty above) is made crystal clear in these words: “And the one who is thirsty should come” (v. 17b, HCSB).  The cherry on top, though, is grace, as the final part of the verse reveals: “Whoever desires should take the living water [echoing Jn. 4] as a gift” (v. 17c, HCSB).

There it is—the gospel “preached” (14:6-7) by the Book of Revelation: salvation by grace through faith (i.e., fearing God or repenting).  Yes, it has something of an Old Testament/ Covenant or Gospel “feel” to it.  But, then, so does the rest of the book, as it fulfills all the remaining prophecies and typological images of the earlier part of the Bible.  So, why should the reader be surprised?


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