The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near. -Revelation 1:1-3
So there was this time when I was a kid, I was nosing around in some letters that somebody had written my mom over a decade before. They were talking about a future visit and what they would be able to do when they were in town together. It was a letter about people being reconciled after a long time apart, and they were coming soon.
As we read through the book of Revelation, we would do good to remind ourselves that this letter isn’t written to us, at least not directly the way we think about it. It was first written to Jesus followers who lived in the world ruled by Rome. They were misunderstood, for the most part they lived in poverty and on the margins, they were beginning to be hated and persecuted, and so God gives John a vision for them.
He shows John life in the Heavens, he opens up the curtain between Heaven and earth and John sees Jesus coming in the clouds with trumpets with a sword and blazing eyes. And I guarantee you whenever this little church that was gathered around listening to this letter being read, when they got to this part, they began to whisper it. Because everybody in that day knew what that language meant.
That was how they talked about Caesar.
Caesar was, after all, indisputably the most powerful person in the world. He ruled the world from India to England and he did it with an iron first. However, you need more than just military might to rule that much land, you need faith. So Caesar needed people to believe he was divine, the son of God, and the Prince of Peace (all titles applied to him). When he was going places, they would say that Caesar came in the clouds and was preceded by trumpets. He was a force to be reckoned with, and these seven little churches (probably, for the most part, just a handful of peasants and slaves) were just a fly on his windshield that he could easily flick off. He had done that plenty of times before.
When Heaven opens up, we see that’s not at all the way that God’s good world is supposed to run. In Heaven, the person who comes on the clouds with trumpets is Jesus. He holds the keys of life and death, which is funny, because that’s exactly what Rome thought they held. And this Jesus sees these 7 little churches as very, very important. In fact, God has a mission for these seven little churches, and it’s not to just survive. It’s to be a witness to this reality, the one that is very different than what they are experiencing on a day-to-day basis. It’s to show earth, what’s going on in the Heavens.
Because in the Heavens Caesar isn’t Lord. He’s not running the show, no matter how much he (or you) think he is.
Now if this sounds questionable to you, consider this: I have a friend who was a missionary in China for many years. I asked her about what the difference was between the Official sanctioned Chinese church, and the many house churches that she helped to plant. There was only a couple of prohibitions that she knew about from the Chinese government. The #1 rule: You cannot read or preach from the book of Revelation.
Maybe the Chinese know something that we Western Christians have forgotten. The book of Revelation is one of the most political books in the Bible. Eugene Peterson points out that “The Gospel of Jesus Christ is more political than anyone imagines, but in a way that no one guesses.” Here’s what he means by that. You won’t find in the Scriptures how to vote for Democrats or Republicans. But you will find a vision in Scripture about, no matter who is on what throne, who is really running the show.
Now imagine a world where churches all over their particular country were going to have to decide who was going to be in charge of making policies for the next 4 years in the area of land that they lived in. And they, along with their neighbors, were able to choose who that was going to be. In this world, these people are extremely blessed to live in a system where they get a right to have a say in all this. But along with their right, comes a temptation. It’s a temptation to start putting hope in their particular candidate to set things right. If you listen closely as they talk about who they are going to vote for they say something that sounds a bit like, “He/she comes on clouds with trumpets…”
And Jesus says to those churches in the Roman Empire, and maybe to the churches that we belong to, “Can I Get a Witness?”
See, whenever you read in Revelation about beast and dragons the first question you should ask is “Is this about Rome?” Or more specifically “Is this about what evil powers were animating the systems of Rome?” But if you listen Revelation has some questions of it’s own.
Can you show the world, by the way you converse about who our political and social rulers and leaders are who you really think is in control of the world?
Can you still have hope without money in your accounts? Can you have joy without the laws you want getting passed? Can you be loving to people you disagree with?
Maybe Revelation is written to us after all.