The Political Challenge: Rethinking Revelation 13
Too often, people interpret the Apocalypse of John through a sensational or speculative lens. One problem with obsessing over speculative predictions is that it eliminates the need for commitment in the present. We in the West tend to be oblivious to the suffering occurring around us, often placing prophetic fulfillment in the future, so we can relate. A future application of Revelation 13 can be argued, but I choose to read the issues presented by John on the island of Patmos as timeless values rather than just predictive events. Following the pattern set by the previous chapter (Revelation 12), this reading suggests much larger cosmic powers at work behind the human affairs of our world. The biblical worldview is that “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12, ESV).
In Revelation 13, we find political aspirations wrapped in worshipful language. In his carefully defined plot, John seems to describe religious systems colluding with political powers to generate a kind of worshipful acclaim. Big words of propaganda and fake news are spoken to win the day, but they ultimately attempt to steal God’s identity (13:5–6). This not only slanders God’s name but affects the economy and even leads to a war against the saints (13:7). Rather than trying to identify specific political and religious leaders as prophetical predictions, we should understand the principles and values in the text that are important to the author. If we can do this, we may begin to see John’s concern for those oppressed and downtrodden—those left unaided on the sidelines, buried in difficulty, suffering, and threatened with death. If we take his message seriously today, which I believe we should, we will consider the cultural and social welfare of a society that allows abuse and oppression. Has the pursuit of material prosperity and power over others become the American dream we are selling? Are we running roughshod over our fellow humans’ bodies and souls (18:13)? The neglect and contempt of the poor—of widows, of orphans, of the sick and homeless—is a perversion of God’s kingdom. We might also consider the history of Christianity, in which hostility, bigotry, slavery, and persecution were parts of the church’s politics.
It seems to me that John is interested in how power is deployed in human life. He is concerned not only about those left on the sidelines but by the failure of commitment in the presence of such injustice. He calls for courageous commitment—standing on the side of the Lamb when the majority choose to go the other way. John’s narrative should prompt us to question the systems in place today that generate conditions that pressure us to compromise. How can we profess to be in a land of liberty and yet oppress others by refusing to extend kindness to those who differ from us? If we are careful to consider the issues in terms of God’s goodness and love for all, we will recognize the powers urging us to trample upon others to advance ourselves. God’s love and good intentions for humanity have never been limited to one ethnic or national group. The dignity and richness of all mankind are deeply rooted in scripture. The intention is that the message of the eternal gospel be proclaimed to those who live on earth—to every nation and tribe and language and people (14:6).
It may appear that our world is hell-bent on a course fraught with danger and disaster, yet God’s answer is that we can choose not to collude with the powers that disrupt God’s good intentions for His creation. The good news is that you and I can join a kingdom inaugurated by the Lamb, who was a victim of religious and political violence. We are not left in the dark. The word apocalypse (apokalypsis) in the book of Revelation means something seen or brought into view. The mystery of our world is revealed not in the events that will happen in the future but in the one who reveals them in the context of the cosmic conflict (1:1). There is a telling contrast between these two kingdoms. God’s kingdom knows nothing of the self-sufficiency that leads to tyranny and self-destruction. The true template of power lies in the love of God for the world. It’s thus an election between two sets of kingdom values. The choice is yours.
In first-century Asia Minor, known today as Turkey, John brilliantly paints the cosmic lines of truth and error, placing them into timeless affirmations that we can apply in any place we might live today. This stage, already set, sees its climatic last movements before the final manifestation of God’s kingdom. Commanding worship and threatening those who refuse are a part of the prophetic elements that call for faithfulness and perseverance.
John is much more than a religious activist socially reforming his day. He sees that society is perpetually under siege by cosmic forces that oppose the way God has been revealed by the Lamb that was killed with violence (5:6). Perseverance and faithfulness are the ways God chooses to accomplish His purposes. This calls for our daily commitment—repenting every day and choosing to participate with the one repairing the world and making it right. We must either commit to the kingdom of God, where new creation and restoration come to all, or commit to the kingdoms of this world, where one must grasp for power to sustain oneself. As each person chooses sides the day will come, when each of these contrasting principles will become a reality in people’s hearts and lives.
The kingdom of God has political, social, and economic dimensions but not for its own sake. The politics of the Lamb makes the world better; it is a protest against violence, poverty, and unjust treatment of our fellow humans, yet its transformation reaches for nothing less than the full realization of the kingdom of God in the world to come. The kingdom is not actualized here; it is to come in the future. The final chapters of John’s vision presents a new city that God has always intended for us. He calls each of us out of the systems of prejudice and neglect to settle into that glorious and flourishing city built by God (Hebrews 11:10).
When we begin to see God’s good plan for uniting heaven and earth, salvation is imparted, and the world experiences redemption. The salvation, glory, and power that belong to God are not just personal experiences. They look for goodness, seeking to restore His redemptive intentions for this world. God wants His message to get ahold of us within the context of deception, force and threat. This requires a stance of critique and being a faithful witness in the face of whatever opposition we might endure for expressing God’s hopeful vision for the world.
Craig Ashton Jr.
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