While Revelation is certainly a book that emphasizes God’s sovereignty over human history perhaps more than any other in the NT, it can be said that it also emphasizes human responsibility for human behavior, including Christian responsibility for Christian behavior, as much or more than any other book in the NT. Warnings in Rev. 2-3 against committing moral or intellectual apostasy and warnings that a Christian’s name can even be blotted out of the Book of everlasting Life are not mere idle threats, since the author believes that disaster could happen to true Christians. They could, under pressure and persecution commit some sort of apostasy. It would be pointless to talk about having one’s name blotted out of the Lamb’s Book of everlasting Life, if one’s name was never in there in the first place. By this vivid metaphor in Rev. 3 our author indicates that the believer must be faithful in belief and behavior even unto death if they are to ‘conquer’ and gain the ‘crown’ of life everlasting.
Note that there is the reassurance in these same texts that Christ can protect the believer from danger from outside sources (temptations, persecutions and the like), but notice as well that with the backsliding Laodiceans we hear about Christ coming and knocking on their door, requesting entrance again into their lives. The phrase “if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with them” suggests an ongoing relationship where the believer must once more actively allow Christ in to do his renovating and healing work. It doesn’t happen automatically just because one has been converted to Christ. Thus both the reality of God’s sovereignty and ability to protect the believer from outside foe, and at the same time the human responsibility of the believer to keep on believing and behaving lest they give way to some sort of apostasy is affirmed at the same time, in the same breath.
If one were to extend a detailed ethical analysis forward into Rev. 6-19 one would discover the same dynamic tension in play, but in another way. Rev. 6-19 serves not only as one long answer to the cry of the saints “how long O Lord” (before the wicked will be judged and the righteous redeemed), but also as a persistent and insistent reminder that “vengeance is mine, I will repay”. In other words the seven seals, the seven bowls, the seven trumpets beat the drum of the theme that justice and judgment, whether disciplinary or punitive, whether temporal or final, should be left in the hands of God in Christ.
The saints are not to take up weapons against their oppressors, but rather be prepared to endure and even, if need be, be martyred, following the pattern of Christ’s life. Rightly understood, the book of Revelation becomes a strong appeal to non-retaliation and non-violence when it comes to Christians reacting to abuse, pressure, persecution, prosecution, or even execution. The author John urges that they must be prepared to go the whole way even unto death without responding in kind to their tormentors. It is remarkable and sad that the book of Revelation has so often been misused to encourage Christians to participate in militaristic solutions to mundane problems.This ignores the whole thrust of Rev. 6-19 which reminds us again and again that only the all seeing, all knowing, infinitely just and fair, all powerful Christ is worthy to unseal the seals of judgment and loose the hounds of heaven on human wickedness. The foolish use of the Armageddon material in Revelation to urge human preparation for a clash of the titans completely misses the point that our author, in Rev. 19-20, is telling us that only the rider of the White horse and his heavenly host is fit to fight that battle, and when it comes to the very end, there will be no battle, simply fire from heaven and the armies of heaven destroying the destroyers.
There is no battle of Armageddon between human armies in the book of Revelation, merely an execution (cf. Rev. 19.11-21 to Rev. 20.7-9). The message of the book is clear on the key theological and ethical point from first to last-- Vengeance must be God’s lest it be something less than justice, and something more like revenge. The cry of Lamech has been replaced in the Gospel by the call of Christ to forgive, even seven times seventy (see Mt. 18). The demand for justice must be replaced by the call to love, to find again one’s first love for fellow believers and human beings, to share the unconditional, unexpected, self-sacrificial love of Christ with the world. This may seem a hard Gospel, but it is in the end Christ’s Gospel, the slain but triumphant lamb who is also the lion. It is no accident that in Revelation the slain but triumphant lamb becomes the overwhelmingly dominant theological image for Christ. This, and not the lion image, is the one used to inculcate a certain approach to discipleship. There is nothing passive about the pacifism of our author and his call for endurance in the faith to the end. Rather it involves the active pursuit of Christ-likeness, following the Master’s path to
G.K. Chesterton said it best: “OrthodoxyYis like walking along a narrow ridge, almost like a knife-edge. One step to either side was a step to disaster. Jesus is God and man; God is love and holiness; Christianity is grace and morality; the Christian lives in this world and in the world of eternity. Overstress either side of these great truths, and at once destructive heresy emerges.@1
1 As quoted in Green, 2 Peter, Jude (1987), p. 160 without citing the source (which I assume is the classic Orthodoxy).