[This was an article I wrote for Think Magazine in a recent issue that focused on Christians and persecution.]
For years the book of Revelation has been a hotly debated book. Many churches neglect to study it because of its perceived and real challenges. My belief is that Revelation will become increasingly relevant and popular again as Christians face persecution. You see Revelation is not meant to be debated in comfy church buildings, but it is a call to faith in the midst of suffering and persecution. The more God’s people become a victimized and marginalized people, the more hope and power Revelation will have for the church!
The book was written to Christians who were living under the vast propaganda of Rome. Everything was calculated for a response of loyalty and submission to Rome and her pagan idols. The book is saying, “Don’t believe what you see!” God is on the true throne, not Caesar (Rev. 4-5). The Christian’s challenge is to see the world as God sees it. John seeks to open his readers’ eyes to the true spiritual reality. God is in control and the Lamb will be victorious.
But what are Christians to do in the meantime? How are they to respond to the social injustices and physical persecutions? One of the simple answers in the book is to be a “witness.” There are three greek words that lay behind this concept in Revelation. They are “martus” the noun form which refers to the one who bears witness. These have the responsibility of bearing a divine message or testimony. In the persecuted church, they become martyrs or ones who witness unto death. The second word is the verb form “martureo” and means to witness or bear testimony. The third form found is the noun “marturia” which refers to the testimony, proof, or spoken statement. These words form an important concept of what Christians are called to be in this world of darkness. Christians are to bear a witness of Jesus. We are to call forth his testimony and message. We are to be truth-tellers in a world of lies and false teaching.
This powerful concept is prevalent throughout the book. Revelation begins by describing John as a witness to the “testimony of Jesus Christ” (Rev. 1:2). Jesus is the “faithful witness” who lived out his testimony on earth and now calls us to be His witness on earth since he has returned to heaven (1:5, 3:14). Antipas was a “faithful witness” or “martyr” of Jesus who was killed in Pergamum. The souls under the altar who cry forth for justice were slain for “the word of God and for the witness they had borne” (6:9, 20:4). The two witnesses who come in the power of Elijah and Moses are slain for their testimony. Though the evil world rejoices at their death, God exalts them in resurrection and victory (11:1-13). Christians are called to conquer by the “word of their testimony” (12:11). The harlot is described as drunk on “the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (17:6). The angel instructs John and his fellow brothers to “hold to the testimony of Jesus.” (19:10).
Chapter 11 is an important chapter in the interpretation of the book, though one of difficulty, it seems this chapter is best understood by focusing on the concept of being a witness. It describes two witnesses who come in the likeness of Moses and Elijah pronouncing the testimony of the Lord (v. 4-6). They possess great power and the reader is anticipating a wonderful victory, but the text extinguishes such hope as the beast makes war on them, conquers them, and kills them. Their bodies lay exposed in the wicked cities of men and earth’s evil inhabitants rejoice over them and make merry, even exchanging presents because these witnesses had been a torment to them (7-10).
John’s vision captures the way persecution looks from earth. Truth-tellers who stand up for the Word of the Lord become victims, they are oppressed and even slain. The multitudes rejoice, and it seems their testimony was in vain. But the vision doesn’t end there! The breath of life from God enters them and they hear a great voice saying, “Come up here!” They go up to heaven in a cloud and their enemies watch them! These witnesses are resurrected and enter the glory of heaven with the Lord. “The point is not that the beast and the Christians each win some victories; rather, the same event – the martyrdom of Christians – is described both as the beast’s victory over them and as their victory over the beast” (Bauckham). From the heavenly perspective, things look quite differently, the martyrs are the real victors. “To be faithful in witness to the true God even to the point of death is not to become a victim of the beast, but to take the field against him and win” (Bauckham). The beast’s apparent victory is not so, but in truth God’s real victory as the truth of God is witnessed to in the dark world.
Throughout the book, the Lord Jesus is encouraging his followers to bear witness to the truth of the Gospel message through their suffering and martyrdom. Christians stand, like Moses and Elijah who confronted the pagan idolatry and political corruption of their world, as the prophetic witness of God in today’s dark world. The role of witnesses is to bring the nations to faith in Christ through their testimony of Jesus (Rev. 12:11). This torments the dwellers of earth and puts truth-tellers in opposition to the majority. Thus, the message of Revelation is to conquer, not through military might or political power, but to conquer as Jesus conquered, as a lamb who died. John envisions each Christian being a willing martyr and witness to the truth. This is how Jesus won, by telling truth and dying in submission to God. It is how his army wins, through witnessing and death.
Consider this thought: Satan’s greatest threat is persecution and death, but the Christian’s greatest victory is martyrdom. Who holds the trump card? You see a Christian’s aim should be to bear witness to the glory, truth, and love of God. When we willingly die, or suffer hardships, because of that witness, it simply strengthens that testimony. As Tertullian, the second century church father said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” The more Satan killed, the more folks wanted what the Christians had!
It is no wonder we get our english word “martyr” from the greek word “martus” used throughout Revelation either translated as “witness” or “martyr” depending on the context. To be witness for God in this world truly should mean being willing to die for that testimony!
As we face increased persecution, marginalization, and ostracization from society as Christians, let’s remember our role. Our role is to be a witness. We must hear the Lord of all the earth, as he looks upon the rampant wickedness and decay of our world asking, “Can I get a witness?” Who will be a truth-teller regardless of the repercussions it brings? This is what God desires. This is how we win! This is what we are called to be; nothing more, nothing less! We are called to be witnesses. To point people to Jesus and His truth. The church is to be the pillar and ground of truth in a world of lies and deception. As persecution comes, remember to view the world from a heavenly perspective, not listening to all of the world’s propaganda, but being a truth-teller—a witness to God in this world!
Bauckham, Richard, The Theology of the Book of Revelation., Cambridge Univ. Press, Cambridge, UK. 1993 Kindle Edition