This Advent, in the Year of the Great Pandemic 2020, it seems appropriate to look at The Apocalypse – that is, The Revelation of John. This is the seventeenth of twenty-six short reflections.
So, who gets to go to the New Jerusalem, according to John the Divine?
This is not a straightforward question. Some people approach this already having the answer.
- A Protestant evangelical might say that it is anyone who has accepted Jesus as their personal Lord and Saviour, and perhaps accomplished by saying a prayer of repentance asking that Jesus’s death be fixed between them and what they should suffer.
- A Catholic or an Orthodox person might say that it is anyone who is a baptised member of the church and who does not reject the saving grace offered in that baptism.
- Some folk have a very narrow understanding, that only a small percentage of humanity will be saved, with the rest being damned.
- Others, Universalists suggest that everyone will be saved, the whole of creation.
- Some simply say Christians only, others extend it to good people regardless of faith or the lack of it.
- Some, ignoring the history of Christian doctrine around salvation by faith, suggest that it is good people who do good things.
- And then there are those who just shuffle their feet and hem and haw, not knowing how to answer.
- Anglicans could be any of the above,
But if you read the text it is pretty clear what John’s understanding of salvation is.
First, let’s begin with chapters 21 and 22. The New Jerusalem is massive, far larger than any city on Earth today. One might argue that the city needs to be large, partly because there will be so many people in it.
As noted yesterday, the following are excluded: “the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, the sorcerers, the idolaters, and all liars.” (Revelation 21.8) This could be read as a reference to the world in general, but I think we need to read it in reference to the position of the churches in John’s time.
- The “cowardly” are those who gave into pressure or fear and abandoned the faith.
- The “faithless” are those who have no faith in the Lord God, much less in Jesus.
- The “fornicators” may refer to the sexually promiscuous, but more likely, it is a way of describing those who worship the various gods and goddesses of the Greco-Roman world; their worship of idols makes them depraved, and so they are sexually licentious. In ancient times, those in power used and abused slaves, underlings, and other vulnerable people for sexual gratification – what we would now call sexual assault. It may be this that John is reacting to.
- The sorcerers are those who try to use magic and the power of evil spirits.
- The idolators are those who make and worship images of gods and goddesses.
- Liars are those who uphold all of the above, including the emperor and all his imperial structures, and who proclaim a kingdom other than that of Jesus.
This is elaborated in verse 27 of chapter 21: “But nothing unclean will enter it [the city], nor anyone who practices abomination or falsehood.” So we see reiterated the liars, those who worship false gods, or those who have become unclean through association with those who lie or worship false gods.
Chapter 22, verse 15 states, “Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.” Apart from the addition of dogs, this is the same list, with murderers added – presumably those who slay the saints of God. I am not sure why dogs are there – they are presumably not actual dogs, but the obsequious followers of the Empire.
Chapters 2 and 3 suggest that the following will receive blessings from God:
- 2:7b To everyone who conquers, I will give permission to eat from the tree of life that is in the paradise of God.
- 2:11b Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death.
- 2:17b To everyone who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give a white stone, and on the white stone is written a new name that no one knows except the one who receives it.
- 2:26-28 To everyone who conquers and continues to do my works to the end, I will give authority over the nations; 27 to rule them with an iron rod, as when clay pots are shattered—28 even as I also received authority from my Father. To the one who conquers I will also give the morning star.
- 3:5 If you conquer, you will be clothed like them in white robes, and I will not blot your name out of the book of life; I will confess your name before my Father and before his angels.
- 3:12 If you conquer, I will make you a pillar in the temple of my God; you will never go out of it. I will write on you the name of my God, and the name of the city of my God, the new Jerusalem that comes down from my God out of heaven, and my own new name.
- 3:21 To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne.
The cumulative impression is that it is the one who conquers who will be in the New Jerusalem with Jesus, and whose name will be written in the Book of Life.
And who are those that conquer? In these chapters they are the ones who toil and endure patiently in Ephesus, and are bearing up for the sake of the name of Jesus. They are commanded to love one another, as their initial fellowship seems to have become stale. In Smyrna they are undergoing suffering and imprisonment, but are encouraged to be faithful until death. In Pergamum they do not deny their faith, although they are in danger of accepting false teachings. In Thyatira they are known for love, faith, service, and patient endurance. In Sardis there are a few who are “alive.” In Philadelphia they patiently endure. In Laodicea they need to turn from self-reliance and depend on Jesus.
The vision of heaven in the following chapters are more expansive. In chapter 5 we read of all creation worshiping Jesus:
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
In chapter 6, verse 9 we hear that under the heavenly altar are “the souls of those who had been slaughtered for the word of God and for the testimony they had given”. They all receive white robes, so those who suffer for Jesus are received into the New Jerusalem. There are, in 7:4 “one hundred forty-four thousand, sealed out of every tribe of the people of Israel”. There are 12,000 from each of the twelve tribes, not just the remnant of Judah and Levi that made up the Jewish people at the time of Jesus and John. So Israel is saved. The number should be read symbolically, and I suggest that it means that most of Israel is saved (and please note, acceptance of Jesus is not implied in the numbers). Then, in verse 7 we hear:
9 After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
So, once again, we have an expansive vision of those who are saved by the Lamb. The angel guiding John describes them:
These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.
15 For this reason they are before the throne of God,
and worship him day and night within his temple,
and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
the sun will not strike them,
nor any scorching heat;
17 for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd,
and he will guide them to springs of the water of life,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”
There is no sense here that they have done anything in particular to merit salvation. They are simply a great mass of people who are hungry, who thirst, and who suffer from the heat of the sun – ordinary people, in other words. They worship the Lamb because they have been saved; the converse is not necessarily true, that they have been saved because they already worshiped the Lamb.
There are various plagues and other types of destruction that follow. Chapter 9 verses 20 – 21 notes that:
20 The rest of humankind, who were not killed by these plagues, did not repent of the works of their hands or give up worshiping demons and idols of gold and silver and bronze and stone and wood, which cannot see or hear or walk. 21 And they did not repent of their murders or their sorceries or their fornication or their thefts.
So idolatrous murderers, sorcerers, and fornicators are condemned, which is not surprising, but the idolatrous thieves are now added.
There are more passages, but for the most part they simply reinforce what we have already seen in what has been quoted above. To summarise, on the one hand the holy people of God, suffering but faithful and patient, will be saved. Likewise, I would argue that God is faithful to Israel and redeems its people. The flip side is that those who worship the beast – those who are hopelessly compromised with the Roman Empire, the cult of the Emperor, and who worship idols and are (as John sees it) consequently depraved – they are not saved. But then, on the other hand, we see an expansive vision of vast multitudes who are welcomed, who worship the Lamb because they are saved.
So within the Book of Revelation there is a tension. John has a two senses of justice: 1) justice for those who are persecuted for the sake of Jesus and because they follow him, and 2) justice for those who suffer as subjects of the Roman Empire. John is mostly concerned with the first, but I do not sense that he condemns people just because they have not heard the good news. He is almost as angry with those who should know better – “Jezebel”, those who follow the error of “Baalam,” and the Nicolaitans – as he is with those who persecute the followers of Jesus. He has strong words for most of the churches that he addresses. But he does still have this inclusive understanding of God’s grace.
Tomorrow I will look at how Revelation has inspired some radical Christians to do some amazing things for God and their fellow human being.