I believe Revelation 13:1-10 is set during the time of the Jewish Revolt, between 66 and 70 AD, which ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, and more significantly, according to the ancient historian Josephus, the death of 1.1 million of God’s people, followed by the survivors being enslaved or scattered across the Roman Empire. The persecution of Christians increased exponentially. Things were very bad for God’s people when John was writing the book of Revelation.
So, what is the point of this Sunday’s passage?
We are not promised a rose garden. Those who preach “health, wealth, prosperity” are at best misguided and mistaken; at worst, they are just lying to you in order to separate you from your money. Captivity, death—those are not healthy or wealthy for you. The devil is seeking whom he might devour: that is, the world, ruled by the devil, is not our friend. We are here to share the Good News and to rescue people from the evil one. If we happen to live comfortably, that’s a great blessing, but not guaranteed. What Jesus guaranteed was this: “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
We must have patient endurance: in the midst of trouble, disappointment, setbacks, horror. This is what is required of suffering. This past week hundreds of Christians died, murdered in their churches across Sri Lanke. Every week, around the world, Christians die for their faith; every week, Christians lose jobs, education, houses, church buildings and freedom for their faith. Whatever we preach, teach, believe, it must be as true for us in our privileged and prosperous life as members of a prosperous, tolerant nation, as it is for those dying for their faith, and those living in the midst of hunger and poverty in crushing oppression and heavy persecution.
We must never forget that remarkably, the church continued to grow, to gain more followers, to expand even in the midst of suffering and poverty; it has ever been so. As people saw Christians die in the arenas, some of them, many of them, decided they wanted to become Christians, too. Not so they could die, but so that they could have that which made Christians able to accept death when it couldn’t be avoided: the hope, the certainty of resurrection and everlasting life. Because the reality is: we are all going to die. Our friends and family, our coworkers and neighbors, the people we do business with and meet in the public square all want to be able to face the inevitability of death with hope, with peace, and with understanding. That’s something Christians have to offer, regardless of when or how death comes; and that’s what those who saw Christians die recognized and wanted desperately. We have the Good News of love, forgiveness, freedom and everlasting life. That’s what everyone wants, rich or poor, no matter where they happen to reside.
Sometimes I think that I could be more effective, do a better job as a Christian, do better work, if I had less stress, less worry, less anxiety, less trouble, fewer problems. If I never had any plumbing to do ever again; if the Dodgers never lost a game ever again, if I always had plenty of money, why, think how effective and dynamic a relaxed and happy me could be!
None of us live in that kind of world. God did not call us to live lives in paradise today (assuming you’re still on the green side of the grass). He called us to live lives here and now, in the world as it really is, not in the world we wish for. He called us to bear witness to, and to join in the sufferings of Christ in the midst of trial and tribulation—and so he promised us we would have trouble in this world, but he also promised us that he has overcome the world. In this world, in the shadows of dark reality, we celebrate each Sunday that Jesus overcame sin, death, and the grave. Our suffering will never exceed those three things. Jesus overcame all three horrors, and so, in him, can we.