The world is going to end in three days, so God calls the three most important leaders on the planet to help him break the news to the masses: Barak Obama, President Putin and Teresa May.
Barak Obama goes back to America and tells Congress that he has bad news and good news. “The bad news is the world is going to end in three days, the good news is that Donald Trump won’t get to be president.”
President Putin goes back to the Kremlin and tells nobody, because knowledge is power and the masses don’t need to know, and in the meantime he organises a new offensive in Syria and the Ukraine, and attacks Turkey.
Teresa May goes back to Parliament and says she has good news, really good news and amazingly good news: “The good news is God thinks I am a world leader, the really good news is that all those problems with Brexit won’t exist in three days and the amazingly good news is that I won’t have to put up with that annoying Boris Johnson any longer.”
So it’s a joke, alright? The world isn’t going to end in 3 days, but as for what happens after Trump becomes president, I can’t make any promises.
The serious point is that we assume that God might end the world sometime, and the reason we think that is mostly because of one book – the book of Revelation, at the end of our bible. If that book wasn’t there, would you assume that God was going to end the world some time?
You wouldn’t. the rest of the bible is quite clear, that God isn’t going to end the world – he’s coming to complete it, to judge it, yes, but fundamentally to complete it and make it good. Jesus will return and the world will achieve the perfection for which God made it. Isn’t this the teaching of the rest of the bible?
Romans 8.21: Paul says: the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. Do you understand that? No more decay, no more death, the creation free to be like the children of God. That doesn’t sound like the end of the world, does it?
2 Peter 3. 12: That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. 13 But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. Okay so this sounds a bit painful and quite hot, but the point is that the fire is there to purify, and what is coming is a new earth – purified, God’s kingdom.
I could go on, but you get the drift: the eradication of evil and the creation of a new, redeemed, perfected earth – this is what we look forward to. And if you manage to hold onto the big picture in Revelation, this book that many of you have been reading, that is what we see there too: suffering, yes, terrible beasts and weird beings, but in the end, a new heaven and new earth, a new city shining like gold – peace and righteousness.
So why all the weird stuff – like we have read about in Revelation 16: bowls of wrath, plagues and stuff? Consider the context in which John, who wrote the book, is writing. The date is uncertain, but what is not in doubt is that Rome has started to persecute Christians. The first major persecution was under the Emperor Nero in 65AD, 30 years after the Resurrection of Jesus. 5 years later the Romans brutally suppress the first Jewish rebellion and kill many Christians in Israel, who are also Jews. And there were plenty of other periods of persecution to follow. Under Nero, Christians were crucified and set on fire; others were used to feed the lions in the Coliseum. The persecution and later war were brutal and merciless. The Romans were efficient killers.
Imagine you are a Christian at that time. You are scared for your life. You are bemused, because up til then the Roman Empire has been fairly neutral about you. You wonder what God is up to – why he has allowed Peter and Paul to be killed by Nero? This is the kind of context that John writes in.
But he cannot write a book that says clearly what he wants to say; there is no such thing as a free press and freedom of speech. He has to write in code. So he talks about Babylon or a prostitute, instead of Rome; he talks about a beast, instead of the Roman Emperor; he talks about angels and demons and a great dragon to describe the forces of good and evil that drive the cruelty and lust of the Empire, and the inevitable judgement that awaits it.
And this is John’s point – that Rome will be judged for its evil. The Empire will fall, like every other Empire that has oppressed God’s people and others. John evokes some of the stories from his Jewish history to tell the story. In ch16 we have the story of the plagues that God sent against Egypt evoked, except the 12 plagues have become 7 bowls of wrath.
John likes the number 7 -it evokes the 7 days of creation. It is a number symbolising completeness. But 6 is not. 666 is the number of the beast. 6 is an unstable, incomplete number. It cannot last. It’s John’s way of telling us that Rome cannot last. It will be destroyed.
There are other messages hidden in the text: there are the 24 elders, 12 symbolising the 12 tribes of Israel, and 12 symbolising the church, led by 12 apostles. John pictures Christian and Jew united in worship in heaven. Gone is the time when Jews were the major threat to Christians; now all who keep God’s commandments are equally under attack.
Another message is the call to remain faithful under persecution. This is, after all, the reason for writing the book. John tells us that there will be martyrs – but they will go straight to heaven, their blood precious in God’s sight. He tells us that the ordeal will be horrible for the rest of us – we will have to endure plagues and destruction, war and famine, but in the end God will triumph and bring about new heavens and a new earth.
The whole book is a call to remain faithful, when you want to give up. And that is what makes it timeless. It is a code book, which would have been passed round the churches, but if it fell into Roman hands, you would be unlikely to be killed for having it. You can’t imagine a Roman official understanding it any more than most people who pick it up today.
When I used to work in psychiatric hospitals, it was the book I most wished had never made it into the new testament. You can imagine how the demons and dragons went down with people who already had schizophrenia! They would take me on one side and tell me that some other patient had the mark of the beast on them, or that they had set their room on fire to purge it of demons.
But it isn’t just people with serious mental illness who are misled by this book. There are Christians who think that global warming is God’s plan to punish us, and that every time there is a serious earth quake it is the beginning of the “end times”. This is another misunderstanding.
The End Times began the moment Jesus rose from the dead and the Holy Spirit was poured out 50 days later. We have been in the end times for 2000 years. The era of the church and the gospel is the end times, and in some ways nothing has changed for Christians in the 2000 years since Peter, Paul and John.
That’s why this book is still relevant. Not as a Nostradamus, but as a story of resistance. The message is that you and I can and must resist the beast, the global culture that opposes God and Jesus.
Rome has gone. Less than 250 years after this book was written the Roman Emperor Constantine became a Christian. After that, for centuries, Christianity was the dominant religion in Europe. But the beast and the dragon never went away. The Empire tore itself apart as Christian fought Christian. Even when everybody was a Christian, some Christians were burning others at the stake. The so-called Christian continent of Europe launched the Crusades and massacred thousands of Muslims, men, women and children. Jews were never safe, and long before the Holocaust, thousands died in pogroms and persecution.
You see, Babylon stands for rampant militarism: the Russian invasion of Crimea, the US invasion of Iraq, ISIS, the British Empire – all these are manifestations of empire, the lust for power and control. Our greed drives us to take from others. Our vanity makes us think we have the right to do so. And often that right is backed up by religion. The Roman Empire worshipped its Emperors. But too often Christian priests have blessed armies as they have marched off to build or defend empires. And that’s why there are 2 beasts in Revelation – the beast of empire and the beast of religion.
Remember that religion is not all good; just like love of country is not all good. And the message in Revelation is that what matters is loyalty to the Lamb, who was slain. Loyalty to the weak Jesus, who turns out to be the winner. Loyalty to love, when the world screams war. Loyalty to Jesus, when the world screams “My country first. Let’s be independent.”
So why did some Christians vote for Donald Trump and Brexit? Maybe because they hadn’t understood this book. Donald Trump is your classic beast: a liar, a bully, an empire builder. Americans voted for him, even though they knew his bad character, because they want him to make them great again. This is always the claim of the beast: I will make you great, I will give you your independence. It’s always a lie, of course, because every empire tramples the poor and makes the rich richer still.
I understand that some people voted for Brexit because they wanted to escape what they saw as the empire of Europe. They saw how Europe treated Greece and they wanted out. I see that. But Europe was never an empire. It had no ruling elite, no emperor, no vision of expansion by force. The EU never killed anybody. Christians who thought that once 10 or 12 countries had entered Europe it had become Babylon, just hadn’t done their homework. Europe had very few of the marks of the beast.
So coming out of Europe means that we must be very careful. We could easily go down the route of becoming either the beast ourselves, or its prey. There are plenty of beasts out there still: Russia, China, quite possibly India soon, and who knows what will become of the USA?
Separated from the pack of Europe, we might well become the easy food for the beast. Revelation makes no promises that things will go well on this earth for the children of God. The question is: will we stay faithful? Will we continue to practise generosity or will we cut our giving and our Overseas Aid budget? Will we care for refugees, or say that they are not our problem? Will we look after the most vulnerable members of our society, or kill off the poor as our money runs out? Will we educate students from across the world, or accuse them of only wanting to steal our knowledge? Will we keep an open, tolerant society, or resort to militant secularism or fundamentalist religion?
You see, faithfulness to God isn’t just about saying your prayers and reading your bible – it is about how we love our neighbour. Jesus was absolutely clear about this. The people who he attacks most vehemently were not the Romans or the Resistance Fighters, of whom there were many, but the religious people – the Pharisees and Scribes – who claimed to love God, but didn’t love their neighbour.
Christian faithfulness is not measured by how long you spend on your knees, but by how open your heart is to the poor, the refugee, the alien and the widow and the orphan. Will we be faithful as the world burns around us?