The Story of God and Us Chapter Eight: Shalom Regained
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Chapter Eight: Shalom Regained
When we left our story last time, the apostles had established a large, multi-ethnic community throughout the eastern Roman Empire, and thus the Church was born. These followers of Jesus had begun to be called “Christians,” that is, members of Christ’s household, and as time went on, they became more and more distinct from their Jewish brothers and sisters.
This distinction came at a dangerous cost, however. Under Roman law, the Jews received special status as an approved religion, and as long as Christians were a sect within Judaism, they were fine. But as it became more and more clear that Christians were separate from Judaism (as far as Jews were concerned), Christians were exposed to any and all threats from the Romans. And so in A.D. 64 the emperor Nero kicked off the first official persecution of Christians, a persecution that likely resulted in the deaths of both Paul and Peter. As time went on, more emperors became antagonistic to the message of a king who triumphs over Caesar (and all worldly power) and sought with brutality to remove this sect from the earth entirely. Christians became, toward the end of the first Century, a persecuted minority.
But, just as the world seemed to be deteriorating (ripe for judgment), it seemed as though God was silent. Jesus, the King of kings, certainly had the power to overcome this persecution and to bring the end of the curse once for all. What was taking so long? What was God up to?
In this state of confusion, the apostle John found himself exiled on the island of Patmos in the Aegean Sea. While worshipping on The Lord’s day, no doubt full of confusion himself, something strange happens. He hears a loud voice telling him to write a letter to the seven churches of Asia minor, and he turns around to see:
seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and this face was like the sun shining in full strength. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this. (Revelation 1:12–19)
That’s how the last book of the Bible, the book of Revelation, begins.
Like any good story’s ending, the book of Revelation pulls together the entirety of biblical prophecy into one vivid display of God’s eventual triumph over the world through his anointed Son. It is not (as is the case with all biblical prophecy) a hyper-specific roadmap describing modern events, but rather it links the persecutions faced by the early Christians with the plan of God to bring shalom back to the world. It is in a defined style, common in the first century, called an “apocalypse,” in which the author disclosed, in a way similar to the Old Testament prophets such as Daniel, the future of the world in “parabolic pictures.” These pictures draw reference repeatedly to the story God has been telling from the beginning, a story with several distinct features:
- God is working to bring judgment on all of the world through Christ. The first pronouncement of judgment in the Bible comes in Genesis 3:14-19, in which God judges both humanity and “the serpent.” Throughout the story of God and humanity, God renews his insistence that disobedience brings punishment, and that this occurs as a result of humans and satanic shalom breaking. In Revelation, God’s perfect and righteous punishment of the earth is displayed through continued series of “sevens”: to the seven churches, who are judged for their allegiance to Christ (2:1-3:22; and the seven seals (6:1-8:5), trumpets (8:6-11:19), and bowls (15:1-16:21) which display God’s continual cursing of the world due to disobedience. These draw back to all God’s work of cursing both in the story of the Exodus, and the story of Israel. And repeatedly, the one who opens the scrolls and announces God’s wrath is his Son, to whom he has appointed the judgment of the world (5:1-14). Christ therefore, after establishing his kingdom, judges the entire world, and only those whose names are written in the book of life are spared the final punishment of eternal destruction (20:11-15).
- The woman’s offspring is triumphant over all the forces of darkness. The beginning of the Bible story contains the promise of the woman’s seed triumphing over the serpent (Gen 3:15). In Revelation, this is seen both alluded to and directly referenced, especially though a parabolic picture in Revelation 12:1-6. The message of Revelation is clear: no matter how powerful the serpent’s forces seem, Christ will triumph over them all. John thus draws reference to many of the forces working to persecute the 1st Century Christians, most importantly the Roman Empire (which he alludes to by the symbolic woman/city “Babylon the great,” chapters 17-18). Christ is shown as the only truly powerful King, so much so that all the nations of the world are vividly conquered by his armies, made up of resurrected saints (19:11-21). Again, this culminates in Christ’s judgment of the serpent, when he throws him into the lake of fire and sulfur (20:7-10). The emphasis of the book is not on over-interpreting the parabolic forces of evil, but on the Son’s triumph over them all when he returns (22:6-13).
- God’s people are called to faithful endurance in the face of dire persecution. In Genesis 3, God tells Adam and Eve that they will suffer the consequences of judgment, even though the woman’s offspring will prevail. In Revelation, the main hope is not that God’s people will be kept from the judgments coming on the world, but rather that God will vindicate them despite their sufferings (6:9-11; 14:13). The book of Revelation, as well as the whole Bible, calls Christians to “patient endurance” (1:9; 2:2-3; 2:19; 3:10) in the face of trials. The hope contained in the book of Revelation is not that Christians are kept from tribulation, but rather that God will vindicate them in the final judgment. And so, the book has seven “benedictions” that pronounce blessing on the readers:
|Blessed is the one who reads aloud, hears, and keeps the words of this prophecy||1:3|
|Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord||14:13|
|Blessed is the one who stays awake, keeping his garments on||16:15|
|Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb||19:9|
|Blessed and holy is the one who shares in the first resurrection||20:6|
|Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy of this book||22:7|
|Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they may have the right of the tree of life and that they may enter the city by the gates.||22:14|
A New Beginning
The hope contained in the whole Bible culminates in the final two chapters of John’s prophecy. After Christ has established his rule on earth and has judged the world, John sees a vision of “a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (21:1). This “new” creation is really the cosmos restored and given new life, washed (as Peter says) with fire (2 Pet. 3:11-13). John sees a brilliant vision, one where God dwells in the midst of humanity and is their light; one where people dwell together in the new Jerusalem, the center of God’s presence; one where all death, pain, and tears of sadness are gone forever; one where humans and the created world live together in harmony; and one where the tree of life surrounds and brings healing. Intimacy will be expanded; we will know and be known in ways we can’t imagine. Places and people and loves will be fulfilled; longing and time and memory will be redeemed; horizons will beckon; rest will rule.
In other words, shalom has been regained in God’s world. God has finished the work he began. And now, as people begin to live the lives they were always meant to live, the first book of God’s story and ours closes, the scribes put down their pens, and the exciting, unending, full life in God’s world begins. What the scribes will write next, no one knows. But, as we trust Christ our king, we know that we will be there to find out.
He who testifies to these things says,
“Surely I am coming soon.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!
 G.R. Beasley-Murray, “Revelation, the book of,” in Dictionary of the Later New Testament & it’s Development (Downers Grove, IVP Academic, 1997), 1026.