For the SPU Paul T. Walls lecture on May 7, 2014, Dr. Rob Wall addressed a difficult and terrifying text: Revelation 13. Here, at the heart of its vision, we find two beasts that the devil has recruited to wage war on the Church. One of the beasts might be Nero or an antichrist – it is identified by the moniker 666. When read in the present tense, it’s basically any “ism” that distracts us from God’s love. The other beast has two roles: to deceive the world about God’s truth, and to manage “Babylon’s” economic system as a warden of sorts, to make sure that those in bread line bear the mark of the beast. But the big-ticket theological problem in Rev. 13 is not “who is the antichrist?” or how to identify the antichrist. Six times in rapid succession in Revelation 13, we read that God gives permission for the beasts to do their work. “This is the problem of evil writ large,” Dr. Wall says. “Our all-omni God allows the beasts to target the saints to the point of exclusion and execution.” Why?
John Wesley helps answer this question with his doctrine of divine providence. From Revelation 4:11, one of the greatest doxologies in all of Scripture, God’s reign is one of kindness that faithfully protects all creatures great and small to their appointed ends. The whole human race depends on God’s love. Wesley does not distinguish between good and evil so much as he discerns different kinds of God’s providential care. Dr. Wall warns, “We must not be too careful to offer any doctrine of providence that offers cheap promises to comfort-eager Christians.”
Then what are we to believe about disasters and tragedies like mudslides and murders? The doxologies praise God’s victory over evil. Revelation 11:15-18 tells us that God’s kingdom has come. Revelation 12:10-12 says God’s salvation has begun. God’s permission to beastly power must then be part of this grand plan – the beasts’ horrors are limited in scope and time. But this is not totally satisfying. So Dr. Wall takes us back to Scripture, to the beasts of Job 40-41: Behemoth (land beast) and Leviathan (sea monster). They are described as beautiful but are “made to be mocked by the angels: You can’t play at God without having God’s chops to do so.” In response to Job’s question, “Why do bad things happen to good people,” God takes him on a whirlwind tour of creation. Suffering is a by-product of the created world; God’s hiddenness cannot be domesticated. The beastly creatures are part of the woven burlap of the world God has made. According to Psalm 1, our response to the connection between Job and the Psalter should be to study the Word more clearly so as to bear God’s fruit in due season. In other words, we should not be fatalistic but seekers of more wisdom.
So back to Revelation 13:10: Saints endure and remain faithful in the face of tragedy, for that is the nature of the sanctified life in the present age. Saints are those believers, those “real Christians” as Wesley calls them, made holy by God’s grace. Wesley teaches that Christians who are freed by grace of the power of sin can choose not to sin and obey the devil. It is the great privilege of God’s children not to sin and resist the works of the devil. In other words, Revelation through a Wesleyan lens: The saints “do not allow the beasts to have at us with impunity passively. We refuse to participate and actively resist the idols around us.” Therefore, we must “endure evil by actively and absolutely resisting it.” God’s providence is thus a participatory providence rather than rigid, brittle one. Revelation 12:10 is one of those doxologies – it declares, “They overcame by the blood of the lamb and the word of their testimony who did not love their life so much that they were afraid to die.”
Our loving and kind God allows the beasts of land and sea to execute and exclude the saints. What are we to make of this? Respondent Pastor Blake Wood of First Free Methodist Church guides us to look through one of the windows of the church in Smyrna in Revelation 2. The message to this church is from one who died and came back to life: “I know your hardship, endure, the devil won’t be able to touch you with the second death.” Thus, as Wood says it, the Church has two ways to live in the face of evil:
1) Be Hopeful: The limited nature of the devil’s reign is meant to encourage us. But we are assured of a reward. Those who persevere will receive the crown of life – this promise comes from the one who has died and come to life. How to be hopeful? Worship.
2) Be Faithful: Be faithful even to the point of death and I will give you the crown of life. “Participatory providence” – God wins and Satan is defeated by the blood of the lamb and the word of our testimony. Faithfulness is to recognize and confront evil.
Satan in Job parallels the accuser in Revelation (Rev. 12). Job and Revelation also have similar ends. Job gains back nearly twice what he lost (except for children, who are irreplaceable) and Revelation ends with this promise: No longer cursed, the servants will see his face. They won’t need the light of the lamp or the light of the sun for God will shine on them. Quoting one of his mentors, Pastor Wood said, “God doesn’t pay at the end of each day, God pays and pays well.”
Similarly encouraging, Dr. Wall concluded the evening with this: “The holy life is lived one inch at a time. The congregation’s business is to follow the Lamb wherever He goes.”
Posted: Thursday, May 22, 2014