Jesus wins: Overcoming from Revelation
Recent years have seen Christians in the UK placed under greater pressure than for several centuries. At times it feels as if we are constantly on the defensive. And yet, over the same period, my church in Bristol has seen a new openness to our involvement with the community and great opportunities to make the gospel known locally – and Jesus still reigns!
Christians are, and always will be until Christ returns, an embattled people. It’s therefore crucial we remember how our story is going to end and who’s in charge even now. In 155AD, the church in Smyrna suffered the martyrdom of the beloved Polycarp, once an associate of the apostle John who had written down Christ’s letter to his home church. They recorded the year like this: ‘…when Philip of Tralles was high priest, when Statius Quadratus was proconsul, but Jesus Christ was reigning for ever, to whom be glory, honour, majesty and an eternal throne, from generation to generation, Amen.’ I get the impression they had been re-reading the book of Revelation.
First to battle
Revelation is the story of a cosmic battle in which God’s people are heavily involved – whether we like it or not. Victory and defeat are prominent themes throughout the book. In each of the letters to the seven churches, ‘the overcomer’ is used to mean ‘faithful believer’ (2:7,11,17,26-28; 3:5,12,21). It is not a title for some class of super-Christian. Given the book’s setting in a time of persecution, it is assumed that faith in Christ will lead first into battle, and then on to victory over Satan and the power of sin.
And the road to victory lies through some pretty dark places. Revelation leaves us with no illusions about this. The two faithful witnesses in chapter 11, who represent the worldwide Church in the present age, suffer death at the hands of the Beast from the Abyss (accompanied by great celebrations on the part of their opponents, the ‘inhabitants of the earth’) before they are raised again (vv.7-11). Chapter 13 shows us the same Beast, in an echo of Daniel 7’s language, ‘given power to make war against the saints and to conquer them’ (v.7). In between, chapter 12 records the triumph of those who have overcome Satan (the Beast-master), but it has been no easy ride: they are acclaimed as not having shrunk from death (v.11). Victory is certainly coming (as we are reminded again in 15:2), indeed it is already secure, but not without conflict and suffering. According to Revelation, that’s perfectly normal.
How to overcome
But the acclamation of heaven in chapter 12 also tells us how we overcome our great enemy and win our own personal part of the battle (v.11). The great battle was decisively won at the cross. We overcome Satan by applying that big victory in our own little lives – through the blood of the Lamb and the word of our testimony. Satan’s great weapon against us is accusation (v.10). Over and over again, he accuses us of worthlessness, of failure, of uselessness. But thanks to Jesus, we have the decisive response. ‘The blood of the Lamb’ is the price that was paid for us. It follows that we are far from worthless: to see that, we have only to look at how the Son of God gave Himself for us. That’s our price tag! It makes us more valuable even than the angels, for there is no salvation plan for them, no Jesus dying for them.
Yes, we most certainly fail, every day of our lives: but when we fall down, Jesus picks us up again. Our hope is unshakeable, because His blood has bought us our new destiny, eternal life, which can never be lost. Satan has no power to undo what Christ has done for us. It is a settled, objective reality.
The second answer is the word of our testimony. The first answer was about our identity: the second is about what we do. Satan would like us to keep quiet. But Revelation insists that the Church will never do that. In spite of the cost, we are to be a Church that speaks. Satan knows he is defeated, but he doesn’t want that to be known. He does not want us to be proclaiming the gospel or telling our friends about Jesus, and he has ways of making it tough when we do. Sometimes, as we’ve seen, the cost of uncompromising testimony may be very high. ‘They did not love their lives so much as to shrink from death’ (v.11). That is the bottom line of discipleship, the ultimate price of taking on the dragon. It’s a price that is being paid by many of our brothers and sisters around the world today.
Perhaps the most vivid expression of the suffering of the saints comes with the picture of the great prostitute, the woman Babylon riding on the beast in chapter 17. John may not have spotted this at first glance, but she is soon seen to be ‘drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus’ (v.6). Babylon is, of course, part of the dragon’s system, the hideous alternative to the beauty of the heavenly city. And if our own battle is not (yet) quite so hot, we should make sure we are supporting our fellow believers all the more in theirs.
The outcome is secure
Revelation is very clear: the battle has already been won: what we are engaged in now is mopping-up operations. Satan knows that as well as anyone. He is furious about it, but he is doomed to failure. His weapons have been rendered ineffective by the cross. However we may feel on any given day, if we belong to Jesus we are on the winning side. We are overcomers because of the blood of Jesus, our hero and champion. And we have a great story to tell. This is the perspective we need.
Finally, at the very end of Revelation’s story, it is possible to enjoy the fruits of victory in full? After the first glimpse of the glory of the new Jerusalem descending from heaven, John is promised ‘He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son’ (21:7). For the first time since chapter 3, the expression ‘he who overcomes’ (ho nikon) reappears, and now it becomes clear that all the promises made to the faithful in the seven churches coalesce in the heavenly city. (Although, to be honest, it’s hard to be sure what the overcomers of Pergamum (2:17) are really being promised!)
Sin dominates the Bible’s big story, all the way from Genesis 3 to Revelation 20. But now, at last, here in the heavenly city, there is no sin and no more curse. Here we are reminded that sin has been left behind, outside the city (21:6-8): these promises are for the people who have overcome, who bear the name of the Lamb. The glorious message of Revelation can be summarised like this: Jesus wins, and we are safe with Him! And that’s what I told my friend last week when he asked for advice on how to teach Revelation to a class of nine and ten year olds. I think he’s going to use it!
Steve Wilmshurst is a pastor of Kensington Baptist Church, Bristol.