Thursday, March 19, 2015

Revelation - Overcomers

I have a mark on my forehead that few people notice today.  The scar has faded over time.  I got it when my brother and I were horsing around, and I hit my head on the corner of the TV.  But when I look at that scar, I don’t remember any pain.  I only remember my older brother helping me, carrying me across the road, through deep snow to our neighbor’s house for help.  I remember the kindness of our neighbor who cleaned my wound and put a bandage on it.  When I look at the mark on my forehead, I only think of love.

            The Bible says that God’s bear a mark on their forehead that identifies them as His beloved.  We first read about it in Ezekiel 9:4, but the theme is picked up in Revelation 7:2-3[i]:

And I saw another angel ascending from the rising of the sun, having the seal of the living God; and he cried out with a loud voice to the four angels to whom it was granted to harm the earth and the sea, saying, “Do not harm the earth or the sea or the trees until we have sealed the bond-servants of our God on their foreheads.”

            People who haven’t even read the book of Revelation have heard of the Mark of the Beast, a sign on the forehead that identifies people who worship the Antichrist[ii], but few people know that the Redeemed have a mark on their foreheads as well.  This invisible, spiritual mark identifies God’s people as His own.  This seal is Jesus’ stamp of approval for all who put their trust in Him, who overcome “because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, [who] did not love their life even when faced with death (Rev 12.11).” 

            The first generation of Christians who received John’s book of Revelation took heart when they read about God’s seal upon them.  Not only did it remind them of a king’s signet, but it also spoke of preservation.  Just as a seal keeps contaminants out of food, so the Holy Spirit keeps believers from the spiritual toxins of the world.  This dual-purposed seal gives Christians both the protection and the authority of Almighty God—something that we need when we face tribulation.[iii] 

            Christians knew a lot about persecution by the time John wrote about his apocalyptic vision.  They were persecuted by Jewish leaders from the beginning. Emperor Nero, who had blamed them for the burning of Rome in the summer of 64 A.D..  Likely, Nero himself had started fires in the quarters near his palace so he could expand his own property, but the flames had gotten out of control.  As a cover-up, Nero made Christians his political scapegoats.  Fox’s Book of Martyrs describes Nero’s persecution as follows:

Nero even refined upon cruelty, and contrived all manner of punishments for the Christians that the most infernal imagination could design. In particular, he had some sewed up in skins of wild beasts, and then worried by dogs until they expired; and others dressed in shirts made stiff with wax, fixed to axletrees, and set on fire in his gardens, in order to illuminate them. This persecution was general throughout the whole Roman Empire; but it rather increased than diminished the spirit of Christianity. In the course of it, St. Paul and St. Peter were martyred. 

To their names may be added, Erastus, chamberlain of Corinth; Aristarchus, the Macedonian, and Trophimus, an Ephesians, converted by St. Paul, and fellow-laborer with him, Joseph, commonly called Barsabas, and Ananias, bishop of Damascus; each of the Seventy[iv]
            Emperor Domitian began his persecution of Christians in A.D..  He required that subjects address him as “Lord and God,” and Christians naturally refused to obey.  Foxe’s Book of Martyrs says:

The emperor Domitian, who was naturally inclined to cruelty, first slew his brother, and then raised the second persecution against the Christians. In his rage he put to death some of the Roman senators, some through malice; and others to confiscate their estates. He then commanded all the lineage of David be put to death.

Among the numerous martyrs that suffered during this persecution was Simeon, bishop of Jerusalem, who was crucified; and St. John, who was boiled in oil, and afterward banished to Patmos. Flavia, the daughter of a Roman senator, was likewise banished to Pontus; and a law was made, "That no Christian, once brought before the tribunal, should be exempted from punishment without renouncing his religion...

Dionysius, the Areopagite, was an Athenian by birth, and educated in all the useful and ornamental literature of Greece. He then travelled to Egypt to study astronomy, and made very particular observations on the great and supernatural eclipse, which happened at the time of our Savior's crucifixion. The sanctity of his conversation and the purity of his manners recommended him so strongly to the Christians in general, that he was appointed bishop of Athens. Nicodemus, a benevolent Christian of some distinction, suffered at Rome during the rage of Domitian's persecution.  Protasius and Gervasius were martyred at Milan.  Timothy was the celebrated disciple of St. Paul, and bishop of Ephesus, where he zealously governed the Church until A.D. 97. At this period, as the pagans were about to celebrate a feast called Catagogion, Timothy, meeting the procession, severely reproved them for their ridiculous idolatry, which so exasperated the people that they fell upon him with their clubs, and beat him in so dreadful a manner that he expired of the bruises two days later.

John himself had been boiled in oil because of his testimony.  Having miraculously survived, it was assumed that he could not be killed so he was exiled to Patmos.  There, he wrote this book of Revelation to encourage those who similarly suffered for Christ.  Christians were marked with Jesus’ stamp of approval.  Even if they were not protected physically, they were preserved for eternity by the Holy Spirit’s seal.

Preterists believe that the book of Revelation is entirely about the Roman persecution of the early church, and a call for Christians to endure.  Futurists believe that the book is exclusively about future events that are yet to take place.  However, I believe that the Holy Spirit included Revelation in the canon of Scripture for all generations of Christians, and not just for the first or the last generation.  Believers in all ages have endured persecution of one kind or another.  Revelation is a call for faithful believers in the past, present, and future.

Revelation 6.9-11 describes the souls of Christian martyrs beneath the altar of God in heaven, crying out for justice.  “And there was given to each of them a white robe; and they were told that they should rest for a little while longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brethren who were to be killed even as they had been, would be completed also (v. 11).”

In Revelation 7 and 14 we find 144,000 Jewish believers who likewise have been sealed by God.  Many have made much of this number, but it is not our purpose to investigate it here.  Suffice it to say that God’s people are marked as His, and that He promises rewards for those who bear His mark of faithfulness.

Some futurists believe the Rapture of the church[v] will happen before this time of Tribulation.  In Luke 17:22-37, Jesus describes his appearance as happening at any time—suddenly and without warning.  Quoting Revelation 3:10, pretribulational (dispensational) premillennialists point to Jesus’ words:  “Because you have kept the word of My perseverance, I also will keep you from the hour of testing, that hour which is about to come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.”  They also point to 1 Thessalonians 5.9, which says, “For God has not destined us for wrath, but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”  Escaping wrath means being raptured, they maintain.

Other futurists believe that the Rapture will happen in the middle of the Tribulation or at the end.  They ask, “Who says it’s God will that the church escape hardship in the future, when we’ve endured it all along?  “Where would all these saints come from, who endure the Tribulation,” they ask, “if all the believers are raptured at the beginning of the time of trial?”  So it seems that your opinion about whether the church will go through the Tribulation depends greatly on your theology of suffering.  Do you believe that God will allow believers to suffer the Tribulation, or do you think His love will let Christians to escape it?  If you’re a futurist, then this is a question that must be answered.

Historicists believe that the timeline of Revelation covers not a seven-year period of Tribulation, but the full scope of Christian history, from the dawn of the Church to the Day of Judgment.  For them, persecution and endurance are continual themes for every generation—and it doesn’t matter when or if there’s a Rapture.  The fact is that sometimes, God’s people are removed from struggle and sometimes they are preserved through it.  The book of Revelation calls for believers to endure—and to do more than endure.  Christians are called to bear bold witness for our Lord, even in the midst of trial.

In the first century, many Christians under persecution recanted their faith in order to save their lives.  For first-century believers, Revelation was a call to continue, even if they had to pay with their last breath.  As an encouraging example, Revelation 11:1-14 gives a tale of two witnesses who stand up to the Beast, even though it ultimately costs them their lives.  Christians are reminded that even though they are killed, they will share in Christ’s glorious resurrection.  So too, Jesus encourages us, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life (Rev 2:10b).”  Revelation is a call for believers of all ages to overcome the evil one, and to endure tribulation however they find it.

In His letters to the seven churches, Jesus has some final words to say to those who overcome:

“To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God… He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death… To him who overcomes, to him I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it… He who overcomes, and he who keeps My deeds until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations; and he shall rule them with a rod of iron, as the vessels of the potter are broken to pieces, as I also have received authority from My Father;  and I will give him the morning star… He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels… He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God… He who overcomes, I will grant to him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne (Rev 2:7, 11b, 17b, 26-27; 3:5, 12, 21).”

I pray whatever trials you endure and whatever tribulations you go through, that you will overcome by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of your testimony.  I pray that you will be faithful, and that you will receive your crown.

[i] All scripture quotations taken from the NRSV.
[ii] Rev 13:16-17; 14:9-12; 15:2; 16:2; 19:20; 20:4
[iii] Jn 6:27; 2 Cor 1:22; Eph 1:13; 4:30; Rev 9:4
[v] Luk 17:34-37; 1 Thes 4:13-17; 1 Cor 15:50-58

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