Wednesday, February 20, 2008

The Theology of Sovereignty and Apostasy in Revelation

The following is a brief excerpt of the exposition on the theological ethics of Revelation in my forthcoming book-- The Indelible Image. The excerpt below follows the detailed exegesis of Rev. 2-3 with some reflections on what Revelation is actually saying about issues like justice, love, perseverance, divine sovereignty and the like.


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 Golgotha, despite all opposition.

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).


Unknown said...

Very well written.

Enoch said...

Agreed, very well written; however, it has always been difficult for me as a believer in the messiah to reconcile a "true spiritual rebirth by grace" and the "blotting of one's name out of the book"....they just seem diametricly opposed to one another!!!


Ben Witherington said...

I understand Enoch, but birth is after all only the beginning of something. It does not provide a guarantee of growing up and maturing into full-fledged spiritual maturity.


K. Rex Butts said...

So later in the Apocalypse, we are told that justment will be based on our works/deeds (ergon, 20.12; 22.12). Does this judgment refer simply to misdeed such as those listed in 22.15 or does works/deeds include remaining faithful even to the point of martyrdom, if so called?

BTW, in our Protestant Christian culture where 'salvation by grace through faith alone' is held with such high esteem, very little talk at the congregational level seems to take place about our judgment, and hence salvation, being effected by our works/deeds (whatever that encompasses).

Great post!


Susannah said...

Amen. Your piece clearly explains from Scripture how dangerously lulling is the notion, "once saved always saved."

Unknown said...

Perhaps it would be helpful to also look at the fact that one can lose their salvation in marital terms. For Christ refers unto His church as being His bride; and the reason for this has to do with the kind of relationship that He wants to have with us.

Therefore: accepting Him as truly being our own personal Lord and Savior is like getting married. Then comes the marriage itself; and as with all marriages: it can only be of true and lasting significance unto BOTH parties if it is based upon BOTH of them wanting to stay married unto each other.

Be assured that He wants to stay with us forever and ever. AMEN!!! Nonetheless: it would not fulfill His purposes to force anyone to spend all of eternity with Him in His Kingdom of Heaven as an heir unto all that is His in glory against their will.

Yes, spending all of eternity in Heaven would most certainly be better than spending it in Hell; but woe be unto all have such an attitude. For only those who truly want to be what we were all created to be will be welcome to spend all of eternity with our Heavenly Father, come Judgment Day.

Reid Cardwell said...

Thanks for writing on this subject. The whole concept of a believer "falling away" is somewhat foreign to what I have believed up to this point. Backsliding, yes, but not such that your name could be blotted out of the Book of Life, unless the "unpardonable sin" was committed (whatever that is). As I read your blog, I realize the incredible holes in my own theology in different areas and I am thankful for your very well-written posts to help me along the way to patching those up.

John Hobbins said...


independently, I just posted on this same topic over at We come at things from different directions, we agree on the substance.

As a Calvinist (Waldensian) with a love for Wesley, I sometimes find myself agreeing with Wesleyans insofar as traditional Calvinist thought rides roughshod over scripture.

Unknown said...

So how do we reconcile justification by grace through faith with "birth is after all only the beginning of something"? Is justification settled, or are we only secure when we are securely in heaven?

Is this where a "New Perspective" framework helps to alleviate what appears to be apparent contradiction?

I struggle deeply with this as a teacher/preacher. When I seek to be an exegete first, a theologian second, texts like what you site here in Revelation and Hebrews deal a difficult hand. It seems that most systematicians construct their respective theologies from either Romans/Ephesians/Galatians or Hebrews/James/Revelation.

If I were to teach Romans 4 this week, and say, Hebrews 6 the following week, how would I represent those texts, in context, without sounding contradictory?

Rev. Spike said...

Try preaching that one on Independence Day weekend :)

danny said...

Wait, is this pieced together from 2 separate areas? Otherwise, it's an odd transition from apostasy to ethics. With that said, I really like what I've read. I'm looking forward to more.

I'd like to hear some more thoughts from Dr Witherington about the whole "judgment based on works" deal. I'll go back and read his Revelation commentary on this section (great commentary, for anyone interested), but it'd be great to hear some more (if I may be so selfish).

Ben Witherington said...

Thanks for so many thoughtful responses. I will try to offer a few answers in short form. First of all, I've preached against tobacco and cigarettes to my tobacco farmers, so, why not go non-traditional on Independence day :)

Judgment that is based on works in the case of genuine Christians has to do with rewards in the kingdom or in heaven-- take your pick. It is not an salvation issue, and salvation is never a reward or something earned it is a gift. Review what Paul says about ministers and what happens when they build with hay, stubble and straw or build their ministries on precious valuable stuff. Me personally, I'm not interested in merely 'escaping by the hair on my chinny chin chin, or as Paul puts it 'as through fire'.

The issue of apostasy or the unforgivable sin is another matter. This is not a matter of this sin or that sin, it is a matter of totally rejecting God after having been converted or born again. This is a conscious willful sin committed such that one repudiates God. There is a difference between a Christian who sins, and a Christian who repudiates the life and the light of Christ in them.

I personally say that we need to preach the whole NT teaching on all such subjects. Initial justification deals with past sins obviously enough-- you are pardoned for them. Thereafter you have to repent and ask for forgiveness and get cleansed again, as is perfectly clear from reading 1 John 1-5. Final justification at the end of life does indeed take into account one's life after conversion. This is what the parable of the sheep and goats tells us quite clearly. Again the issue is rewards in the kingdom, not salvation. Me personally I am trying to live my life so what I will hear then is "well done (not merely well believed) good and faithful servant" Goodness and faithfulness have to do not just with character but with behavior. We were created in Christ for good works, Ephesians reminds us.



Pastor Chris Roberts said...

"And he said, 'These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb...'"

I have always read this as some work to be done... at least on "our robes."

And if nothing else, Revelation is certainly a book about allegiance and identity, especially if you read it as a preterist. Is your allegiance with God or "Satan" (Rome or "The Powers of This World")? As already implied this certainly brings into question civil religion. Our allegiance involves more than just where we put our beliefs but how our beliefs are prioritized in how, who, and what we worship and live our lives. But perhaps that revelation involves too much of a revolution.

See you Sunday. I am looking forward to it.
-- Chris

Deane said...

Hi Ben,

Uncannily, I recently wrote a blog post on Rev 2, but with some rather different conclusions to yours on the nature of the 'apostasy'. If you are interested, please have a look. Not being the expert you are on this book, I'd appreciate any feedback you have the time for. It's an interpretation that I'm still developing, but I think it has some degree of originality as well as - more importantly - plausibility.

I thoroughly agree with you that here, as throughout most NT and early Christian books, salvation is something that can be lost once gained.


Enoch said...

Dr. Ben

One final thought in relation to the "apostasy of a believer"; however, before I address that thought I do appreciate your response.

I certainly realize that the scriptures addressed phrases such as; "if you hold", "if you keep" or "who began...will continue" to name a few pertaining to the gospel of Jesus.

However, the way Jesus describes the new birth to Nicodemus and his entire message throughout the book of John seems to apoint away from the case of revelation 2 in regards to a genuine rebirth of God's spirit. Like, how can a butterfly go back to being a catepillar...rhetorically speaking.

Just seems to be somewhat of a paradox between the rebirth and apostasy in relation to how Jesus describes in the book of John.

Just some thoughts!!!


Ben Witherington said...

Well Enoch if you look carefully at the abiding language in John 14-17 you will discover that keeping Jesus's word and obeying his commands are key to continuing to abide. Spiritual experiences are important, including conversion of course, but continuing to abide is both expected and required to reach the kingdom's goal. In other words, the Fourth Gospel doesn't really suggest anything different than the Revelation on this matter.



Ben Witherington said...

The best book on this subject is I.H. Marshall's Kept by the Power of God.


Falantedios said...

To use Enoch's metaphor...

The butterfly doesn't go back to being a caterpillar. What happens exactly, we don't know, but the Hebrew writer makes it terrifyingly clear -- "there no longer remains any sacrifice for sins". God may heal the butterfly shorn of its wings, but the transformation of rebirth happens once and only once. Apostasy does not merely return you to your former state.

in HIS love,

Deane said...

That's odd - I was sure I had included the URL to my blog poswt on Revelation 2.

Here it is: