During the early years of the Church, we saw how the Christian community struggled with numerous issues of faith and life. In the book of Revelation we will see the ways God completes the process of forming an all-inclusive community as the Church remains faithful in tribulation and transitions into eternity.
01. God's Action
In the book of Revelation we see the completion of God’s plan for humanity and the extension of human existence on into eternity. Revelation pulls aside the curtain veiling God’s larger world from human eyes—a curtain that fell during the period recorded in Genesis 1-11. In Revelation we see a vision of the future from the perspective of the first generation of disciples to experience the world revolution set ablaze by Jesus. It shows us the cosmic character of the Christ who promises to be with us “always, even to the end of the age” (Matt 28:20), and of the Lord God Almighty, who has always made human history his project. Revelation brings the reality of God-with-us to the fullness God always intended.
Revelation is the counterpart of Genesis, as both books locate humanity in an environment distinctly outside human history as we normally understand it. The breakout from a religion confined to a particular ethnic people is described in the Gospels, Acts, and Epistles; this separation is completed by the time Revelation opens. Accordingly, one of the most repeated references in Revelation is to all “peoples and tribes and languages and nations” (Rev 11:9) or similar variations (e.g., 13:7). This is the calling forth of that all-inclusive community of loving persons that God has been intent upon forming throughout all of history.
In the opening of Revelation Jesus Christ is described as “the ruler of the kings of the earth” and the beginning and the end of everything (1:5). The future Jesus presents through John has three clearly articulated sections with three distinct ways God is with his people.
The first section is a vision of the future of the ekklesia—the Church of Jesus Christ—on the world stage (1:9-3:22). It is a revelation of Christ over the worldwide Church until “the end of the age” (Matt 28:20). It is presented in the form of letters to the “seven churches that are in Asia” (1:4) and it is perhaps best understood as a vision of the typical ways—both good and bad—the people of Jesus gather together to be the continuing incarnation of Jesus Christ upon the earth for the period during which such churches will exist.
Although the Church is ideally free from the ethnic bondage, peculiar legalisms, and cultural self-righteousness, the picture remains one of great struggle, temptation, and failure, of blood and death as well as faithfulness to God and triumphant life. Many similarities exist between the earlier dispersion of the Jewish people into exile and the worldwide dispersion of Christ’s followers. Clearly the church age is not the ultimate end of God’s plan. But it is the last stage of that plan within “ordinary” human history. God is not only present with his people through his Word and Spirit, but also through the accruing artifacts, traditions, and institutions of the Church.
In the second section a time of tremendous upheaval and calamity upon earth is foreseen upon earth, when human wickedness, in conjunction with both good and evil superhuman agencies, strides across the world stage (4:1-20:15). Massive battles between good and evil occur as well as immense public judgments upon humankind by God. The People of God who remain on earth suffer greatly from widespread persecution and martyrdom, but they bear it triumphantly with the full assurance that their faithfulness to Jesus will be vindicated.
The earth itself suffers such geological, biological, and human devastation in this transition period that it is scarcely habitable by the end of it. The human system of life (“Babylon”) is rendered nonfunctional (18:1-19:3). God is with humankind in judgment and with his people in upholding and delivering them. Christ himself finally comes on the scene as cosmic ruler to end the history-long battle of good and evil through his unquestioned victory and overwhelming presence.
The last scene in this transition period is judgment, first of Satan and his helpers and then of human beings “great and small” (20:1-12). Accounts are settled. Justice is done. Evil is permanently put in its place and rendered powerless forever.
Finally, in the third section the People of God enter into the fullness of God’s cosmos and the fullness of his presence (21:1-22:21). Jeremiah, the prophet of exile, had foreseen a time when “no longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.” It would be a time when, finally, “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer 31:33-34).
We should not suppose that Jeremiah’s words mean that God will, at some specific point, give up on his efforts to win humankind to himself and simply “rewire” them as one might do a robot. If that was what God wanted, he could have done the “rewiring” at creation, or after Adam and Eve fell, or at any other time along the way. No, the phrase “the law within them” refers to our inward identification of character with God: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5).
In eternity there will be no need for God to give us space to grow, for we will have grown into his very own character. We will not be innocents, as were Adam and Eve, but fully knowledgeable of evil and what it means. Therefore we will not be tempted by it, for we will see it for what it is and not as something in some sense “good” (Gen 3:6). We can now be fully trusted whether God is present or absent, and he is present with us always because we have his character and constantly do his work in union with him. Now God’s intention for us is fulfilled, and we reign with him “forever and ever” (Rev 22:5).
This “reigning with” is the form the with-God life takes in ongoing eternity. There is no temple in the city, “for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb” (21:22). There are no religious jobs. The work of mediation is finally done, though its role in redemption and its results are an everlasting element of God’s world, emblazoned in the identity of God’s people. The Mediator—the “Lamb”—stands forever as a part of our being and as a revelation of who God is. This reality stabilizes our character in godliness beyond the slightest tremor. We are lost in goodness with God and in doing what God is doing.
02. Human Reaction
Multitudes of people were drawn to the incarnate Christ and become his apprentices in kingdom living. His followers out-loved, out-thought, and out-sacrificed the surrounding pagan world, and, by the force of Jesus’ presence in them, the dominant culture in the Mediterranean world became identified with him. For centuries this continued to develop and expand, though not always in directions reflecting the clear nature and intentions of Jesus.
On the contemporary scene apprenticeship to Jesus remains a widespread ideal, but there is often little understanding of what it means for spiritual formation in Christlikeness. Now, only in the rarest of cases do we find in Christian churches purposeful, continuously progressive, and all-inclusive spiritual growth through discipleship to Jesus. Through the ages there are many brilliant examples of what discipleship can be, but on the present scene what we generally face, and what the world sees, especially in the West, is a Christian culture without discipleship to Jesus.
It is yet to be seen what the future response will be to apprenticeship to Jesus and what the Church will mean for world society throughout the twenty-first century and beyond. What can it possibly mean to “accept” Jesus Christ, but not be his student? And what is the fate of a modern world that rejects him?
By contrast, the period of transition described in Revelation 4-20 will most certainly eliminate the “lukewarm Christians,” for those who face suffering and death on Jesus’ behalf will without doubt be his intensely devoted apprentices. And, of course, in the new heaven and the new earth the People of God will be entirely given up to God and his glorious reign throughout the universe: “God will dwell with . . . his people, and . . . he will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain any more” (21:3-4, RSV). Evil and disappointment will utterly disappear in favor of good and perpetual progressive fulfillment of human destiny (chaps 21-22).
03. Blessings and Benefits for Our Formation
Apprenticeship to Jesus Christ, under the direction of the revealed Word of God and the administration of the Holy Spirit, is the single most powerful and beneficial transformational process known to humankind. It stands head and shoulders above all possible competitors—of which there have been and are many. This is because through Christ the fullness of God—who is powerful and intelligent love—breaks through to human beings as nowhere else.
All of the past ways God has been with human beings reach their fulfillment in Christ as he lives among his people. Grace and righteousness are dynamically combined in our faith in Christ and in our walk with Christ: “Steadfast love and faithfulness will meet; righteousness and peace will kiss each other” (Ps 85:10). The power of the Word and the Spirit in the people of Christ, past and present, transforms every essential dimension of the human self and liberates us from rebellion and alienation to such a degree that we routinely “reign in life by one, Christ Jesus” (Rom 5:17 KJV).
Looking beyond the time of the Church on earth, we are eternally living with the triune God in ever increasing competence, creativity, and responsibility under him. This is truly “the blessed life” that poets, artists, and prophets can only vaguely dream about.
04. Limits and Liabilities for Our Formation
In the final stage revealed in the book of Revelation there are no limitations whatsoever to this form of God-with-us: “There will be no more night . . . for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever” (Rev 22:5). In the transition stage the limitations are human weakness and appalling, external evil. During the church age, in which we now live, the limitations on spiritual formation lie in the power that evil—”the world, the flesh and the devil”—continues to have in deflecting and hindering intense apprenticeship to Christ, even among those who know him and profess faith in him. Though we may clearly be born into the kingdom of God, we still have to deal with the other “kingdoms” that temporarily remain present on earth—government, finance, education, art, and culture, as well as the many individuals with whom we share the earth.
Ideas and systems are among the most pernicious enemies of apprenticeship to Jesus, and these are often within the Church itself. This can be seen today, for example, in the self-righteousness of denominationalism and sectarianism. It can also be seen in the subjugation of authoritative Christian teaching to the intellectual or social idols of the age. And it shows itself in the preaching of a “gospel” that has no essential connection with honest, practical, all-inclusive apprenticeship to Jesus in kingdom living now.
Also, the incarnate and therefore finite form of human existence continues. This means that movement forward in Christlikeness, for the individual or for society, is highly time-intensive. That, of course, is why God works through history instead of just waving a magic wand and transforming everything at once. Character is costly, and only choice and experience through time can produce it.
05. Insights and Instructions for Our Formation
Apprenticeship to Jesus in the fellowship of his people is the only assured path of life under God. On that path we move from faith to more faith, from grace to more grace, and are able to walk increasingly in holiness and power.
We will never escape our finitude in this life, nor find complete freedom from the presence of evil around us. Therefore we must not expect to escape some measure of suffering and failure. But God is always with us in Christ; and we can triumph over all trials. Moment by moment and day by day, we, by means of appropriate Spiritual Disciplines, keep ourselves constantly under the direction of Jesus through his Word and Spirit.
No matter how far we advance while in this life on earth, we know only in part and we prophesy only in part. We really do not have enough mind power, even under divine inspiration, to keep everything straight. But the complete is coming, and when it does the partial will come to an end. “For now we see in a mirror dimly,” but we will see clearly (1 Cor 13:12). Then we will dwell with-God and God will dwell with us as he intended from the beginning of time. Maranatha!