9. Standing by words—Revelation 11:1–12:17
[This is the ninth in a series of posts summarizing the message of the book of Revelation. I have been writing on Revelation off and on for a long time. My intent with this project is to write a new book applying Revelation’s message to our modern world.]
I am trying to wrest this most fascinating of biblical books from two different kinds of reading. One sees it as being a truthful account of the future, full of predictions and a set-in-concrete plan of God that will violently cleanse the earth of all those who oppose God—both rebellious human beings and the evil satanic powers. The other sees Revelation as the paranoid ravings of a religious fanatic who projects onto God all his anger and envy and judgmentalism and gives us an unbelievable picture of future catastrophes and punishing tribulations.
Of course, though one view loves Revelation and the second hates it, both agree on many important details about its content—violence, judgment, future catastrophes.
A quixotic quest?
What I am trying to do is read Revelation instead as a book of peace that intends to strengthen people of good will so that we might witness to healing in a violent world—healing even for God’s human enemies. Right in the middle of the book, we find two wondrous stories that, in all their bewildering detail, each essentially tells us the same thing. God is indeed work to heal God’s good creation—and a crucial role in this work is to be played by the human followers of the Lamb. The role these followers have to play asks of them two things—that they embrace a ministry amidst the nations of the world of telling the truth. And that, in embracing this ministry, they refuse to be deterred by suffering and even death.
In chapter ten, John is given a scroll to eat that evokes the great scroll the Lamb took from the One on the throne in chapter five. Having eaten this scroll, John reports two very different kinds of visions in chapters eleven and twelve.
These two stories tell of the two witnesses and of the woman and her offspring. They add two crucial points to the overall picture John paints. First, they emphasize truthtelling. The “two witnesses” are also called “the two lampstands” (11:4). Chapter one refers to the lampstands being churches, so I think we should see the “two witnesses” here as a symbol for all the followers of the Lamb.
The “one thousand two hundred and sixty days” refers to the entire period of time following Jesus’ resurrection—the same time, that is, of the various plagues we see so graphically described, during this time the two witnesses “prophesy.”
John tells us something pretty interesting. These two witnesses have the power to “consume” those who want to “harm them”—but their weapon is “fire [that] pours from their mouth” (11:5). I take this as an image of the power of their verbal witness. This is analogous to the sword we are told comes from Jesus’ mouth back in chapter one. Their power is the power of speaking the truth. At the end of chapter twelve we have a similar idea. The children of the woman (also a symbol for all the followers of the Lamb) are called the ones who “hold the testimony of Jesus” (12:17). So, the effectiveness of the witnesses is based on their speaking truth.
The second point these two stories add is that these witnesses were not afraid to suffer. As they speak truth in face of a world bent on domination and repressing truth, they face consequences. Jesus, though, shows the way. He was the faithful witness who conquers even as he is killed. This is the message of chapter five. Likewise with the people in the congregations addressed in chapters two and three. They were called to “conquer” as they follow the path of truth-telling all the way. The Beast makes war on them and actually “conquers” them—that is, puts them to death. In this case, as with Jesus, this violence by the Beast does not end the story. God vindicates these witnesses. They are resurrected.
In the second story, in chapter twelve, of the woman and her offspring, the statement is made explicitly: “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah, for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down. They conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death” (12:11). This is huge—we human beings who seek to follow the Lamb have a crucial role to play in God’s victory.
God is not our enemy
So now we are told that God is not our enemy. No matter how we might think of God’s oversight of the plagues, we are told here of the actual agents of the direct death and destruction that characterizes these twelve hundred and sixty days of history between Jesus’ resurrection and the final coming of the New Jerusalem. The plagues are the work of the Beast making war on the two witnesses and the Dragon making war on the woman’s offspring. The next several chapters will make the role—and the fate—of these evil Powers more clear.
The method of conquering God wants faithful human beings to use is the same as it was for God’s Son: “Conquer by keeping the commandments and holding the testimony of Jesus” whose self-giving love is the force more powerful that actually does conquer the Powers of evil—by breaking the spiral of violence and making healing possible even for God’s human enemies.
The message of Revelation 11–12 for today
We too live in a time and place, like first century Rome, where empire as a way of life corrupts language and thereby inflicts damage on persons and communities. So, we need to discern how language is being destructive of meaning and how to speak truth in face of that destruction.
How is language being emptied of meaning in our setting? Well, think of the language of war and militarism. When our bombers kill ten times more civilians than combatants their work is called, antiseptically, “collateral damage.” Even the term “national defense.” The U.S. changed the name of the War Department to the “Defense Department” right after World War II as we transitioned to a permanent war footing and expanded our foreign military presence around the world. We took the offensive and increasingly militarized our entire federal government.
In Revelation, what is most dangerous about the Beast is its way of defining reality. This is why—as we will see in chapter 13—John presents the Beast in religious terms. The Beast’s power—then and now—depends upon the people living in its domain giving their consent to its rule and believing in it. The danger for the communities of faith John wrote Revelation for was that they would grant this consent and not recognize that the truth of the Lamb and the “truth” of the Beast tend to be altogether different things.
We know from history, and from looking around today, that to resist giving consent to the Beast’s way of defining reality, that is, to tell the truth, can be risky business indeed. But John proclaims that the power the Beast actually has in far from total. It only seems that way when we accept its definitions. When we don’t accept its definitions, it is greatly weakened. This is how the Lamb’s way can make a huge difference in the world.