By Jeremy Berg
What’s the most powerful force in the universe?
This question arose in the minivan this morning on the way to school with Peter, Isaak and Abby. We were praying the Lord’s Prayer, and I was explaining that “our daily bread” is simply what we need to make it through another day.
When I asked them what we need to survive, Peter answered: “Food, water, and guns to kill the bad guys.” Oh, oh! Teaching moment. This led to a familiar conversation we often have about dealing with “bad guys.” More on that conversation below.
After dropping them off, I was reading through Revelation for my morning devotions using Tom Wright’s Revelation For Everyone commentary. (By the way, Wright’s For Everyone commentaries make great devotionals.)
Sadly, like many pastors today, I have tended to avoid Revelation. Popular end-times novels and quacky prophecy conferences and complicated charts, have filled the air and church-goers’ minds with so many misguided ideas that it seems a daunting task to know how to begin reading and teaching this book in a historically informed, genre-conscious and biblically responsible way.
The reality is, Revelation can be a very relevant and helpful book during these tumultuous times in our world. Not because I believe we’re in the end times and Revelation gives us clues as to exactly how the final events will go down. Revelation was originally written to address communities of believers in the first century who were facing (or about to face) very real and difficult socio-political upheavals and religious persecution.
John’s vision is meant to offer hope and an eternal perspective to people suffering hardship and unspeakable injustice. Its written into a politically charged situation where the powers of darkness (often veiled references to the blood thirsty tyrants ruling in Rome) are hunting down and killing Christians.
Who will stand up to these tyrants? Will the faithful Christian martyrs burning alive in the Roman amphitheater be vindicated? More importantly, if and when God does intercede in world events to confront the powers and vindicate his people, by what means will he act? Will he bring holy war, conquering the pagan hoards with the sword, returning evil with more evil, and wiping out the enemies of the cross?
Nope. Revelation gives us a cross-shaped warfare and a God who overcomes the power-hungry, blood thirsty tyrants by way of the cross and resurrection. The Lion of Judah has conquered, but when look up at the throne of this Savior and King, the vicious lion in John’s vision has been transfigured into a Lamb standing as if slain.
In his earthly ministry, Jesus taught that “All who live by sword-power will die by sword-power” and instead inaugurates a radically upside down, non-violent kingdom where his followers don’t return evil for evil, but instead turn the other cheek, love their enemies, bless rather than curse those who persecute them.
So, again, what’s the most powerful force in the universe?
Back in the mini-van, I explained again to my kids that while most people (and movie plots) try to kill and rid the world of bad guys, Jesus actually wants to change bad guys into good guys. While guns have the power to kill bad guys, only love moves us toward an enemy with the compassion and hope for transformation. A gun or nuclear warhead can destroy our enemy, but only love has the potential to transform an enemy into a friend. “So, kids”, I concluded my lecture as we pulled into the school parking lot, “What’s the most powerful weapon in the world?” “Love!” they answered in unison like good little PKs (and then my 6 year old slugged the 4 year old and crying ensued).
I stumbled upon an illustration of such disarming love awhile back in one of those dangerous and evil Harry Potter books many Evangelicals still boycott. The first book in the series took me by surprise and brought me to tears as it concluded with a beautiful message about the power of love to overcome evil. Before the book begins, Harry’s mother had died protecting Harry from the enemy when he was a baby; the orphaned Harry survived the ordeal but was marked forever with a vicious scar on his forehead.
Now, later in life, Harry Potter discovered he possesses a power that enabled him to resist and overcome the evil attack of Voldemort residing in the body of Quirrell. “Quirrell couldn’t touch his bare skin, not without suffering terrible pain.” Where did such power come from? Harry asked Dumbledore, “Why couldn’t Quirrell touch me?” Here’s his powerful Jesus-like explanation:
“Your mother died to save you. If there is one thing that Voldemort cannot understand, it is love. He didn’t realize that love as powerful as your mother’s for you leaves its own mark. Not a scar, no visible sign … to have been loved so deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection for ever. It is in your very skin. Quirrell, full of hatred, greed and ambition, sharing his soul with Voldemort, could not touch you for this reasons. It was agony to touch a person marked by something so good.”
Jesus, too, was marked by “something so good.” It’s the disarming power of self-sacrificing, Calvary-shaped love. It’s the way the Lamb makes war in the hostile powers of this fallen world, and its the same cruciform Way the church is called to imitate as we navigate the perennial evils and injustices that still mark our world.
And I can’t resist another Harry Potter parallel (because I love picking on the anti-Potter Christian crowd). The other gift Harry possessed that enabled him to be victorious in his battle was a certain cloak — the Invisibility Cloak. Harry stood his ground and withstood the enemy because he, like Christians, “put on” the cloak, the full armor, his Father left for him.
Back to Revelation. I was reading in chapter 7 about the great multitude of those who have come through the great ordeal. Unlike Potter, they were not spared. Many died bearing faithful witness to the Christ as they forgave their torturers and prayed for their executors just like Jesus.
But, we ask: Where was God when they needed Him? Why does He turn his back on innocent sufferers? Doesn’t He care? Was He busy running other galaxies and didn’t happen to hear our cries for help? These are the questions we ask and accusations we often make of God when bad things happen to good people.
But John’s vision encourages those who are suffering or who have watched loved ones suffer, by giving us a different picture of God, and a different picture of the sufferers.
9 After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. 10 And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.”…
13 Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?”And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.15
Therefore,“they are before the throne of God and serve him day and night in his temple; and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
16 ‘Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat down on them,’ nor any scorching heat.17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne
will be their shepherd; ‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.’”
The sufferers are not shaking their fists at God for not rescuing them from death. Instead, they are singing a victory song before the throne of the Lamb. And God? Where is He in this drama? Far off and aloof? Cold and indifferent? I close with Tom Wright’s commentary on the scene:
“And, in the final anticipation of the New Jerusalem (21.4), God himself ‘will wipe away every tear from their eyes’. There is an intimacy about that promise which speaks volumes for the whole vision of God throughout the book. Yes, God is rightly angry with all those who deface his beautiful creation and make the lives of their fellow humans miserable and wretched. But the reason he is angry is because, at his very heart, he is so full of mercy that his most characteristic action is to come down from the throne and, in person, wipe away every tear from every eye. Learning to think of this God when we hear the word ‘God’, rather than instantly thinking of a faceless heavenly bureaucrat or a violent celestial bully, is one of the most important ways in which we are to wake up from the nightmare [of suffering and injustice in our world] and embrace the reality of God’s true day [not yet fully arrived but already breaking into the present]” (76).
Dear Christian: To have been loved so deeply by Christ, who gave his own life in order to save ours, will give us some protection for ever. Something of this Higher Love has been transferred to us; by the power of the indwelling Spirit, it is in our very skin! Harry was marked forever with a scar to remind him of his mother’s self-sacrificial love. Christians are marked forever by baptism into Christ’s death, an enduring reminder of his scars for us!