Surprised by Assurance: A Journey Through the Book of Revelation, Part 2
In a previous blog post, I discussed that though the book of Revelation is about the future, the Lord intends it to strengthen the faith of his people today. The Lord has assured us with at least four overarching truths that help form the theme of the whole book, giving us hope and confidence to face whatever happens as the future unfolds. Here is the second:
2. Assured by Divine Control.
Even when events in the world appear chaotic and evil seems to reign, God himself is always completely in control. This may not appear to be a bombshell revelation for anyone who knows the Scripture. But during times of persecution when the world is coming apart all around them, the Lord knows that his people need the added assurance that nothing functions outside of his wise and gracious power.
Revelation reminds the reader of this truth in two significant ways.
The Reality of Specific Events
First, the prophecy declares that specific events will surely take place, implying that the sovereign hand of God at the helm of the world, guiding events, using even the evil decisions of his fallen creatures to work his will. The Lord instructs John to write “the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this,” or those things that are about to happen (Rev 1:19). When John writes what is about to happen, he records a vision of an actual chronology of events that will unfold in the future.
For this reason, of the various ways that people have interpreted Revelation over the centuries, the idealist approach is the least able to appreciate God’s sovereign hand in unfolding events. The historicist, preterist, and futurist views, though they differ in significant ways, all argue that Revelation is speaking of an ordering of events by God. But the idealist approach suggests that the book does not record actual events but rather ideas or symbols that represent the ongoing struggle between God and Satan, the church and the world, good and evil.
Granted, the order of events in Revelation may be confusing to the reader. But that is because the timeline is often interrupted as the author jumps ahead to focus on the climax of the Lord’s return, or as he goes back in time to call the reader’s attention on a particular event. In fact, the plot line of Revelation is not unlike that of an epic novel. Take Tolkien’s well known Lord of the Rings, for instance. You may be reading a chapter that follows the main storyline of Frodo and Sam’s adventures as they find their way through Mordor to Mount Doom to cast the “One Ring to rule them all” into the fire. In the next chapter, however, Tolkien takes you back to find out what is happening at the same time in the city of Minis Tirith as the people prepare for Sauron’s attack and, in the chapter after that, what is happening to bring the riders of Rohan to their aid. At one point there are four or five different plot lines going on, yet Tolkien masterfully brings all of these stories to the same climax when the ring is destroyed, the enemy is defeated, and the king comes to his throne.
That is a bit what reading Revelation is like. For example, beginning in Revelation 8 John describes judgments announced by angels blowing trumpets. Once six of seven angels have sounded trumpets, chapter 10 declares that the dramatic final end will come as soon as that last trumpet is blown. So we turn to chapter 11 expecting the final trumpet, but instead John begins to describe how during this time period, even as judgment falls on the earth, God will raise up witnesses to call his own people, the Jews, to repentance before it is too late. Not until the end of chapter 11 does the final trumpet sound, followed by a great anthem of praise in heaven that the time has finally come for Jesus to begin his reign, for God’s wrath on the wicked and his reward for the righteous (Rev 11:15–19). There is lightning and hail and an earthquake, so we turn to chapter 12 expecting to reach the climax. But, no, instead we find that John goes back to describe Satan’s attack against the Lord and his people during this time (Rev 12–13).
A few chapters later, this climax is still being suspended. Even after the final series of “bowl” judgments are poured out upon the earth and the Lord is about to break through the sky to return (Rev 16:17–21), there are two and a half chapters that focus in on the destruction of “Babylon” before we finally catch a vision of Jesus returning on a white horse (Rev 19:11–21).
Nevertheless, the patient reader will appreciate the general chronology of the book that emphasizes God’s control over the unfolding events in the end time.
The Source of All Power
But there is another significant way the book of Revelation assures the reader of God’s divine control and that is by weaving into the events of the prophecy a reminder that any power or authority ultimately derives from God (cf. Rom 13:1), the author of all power. John signals this derived power with the divine passive, often using the verb δίδωμι (didōmi), meaning, it was given.
For example, to the demon locusts in Rev 9:1–11 power was given (9:3). But that power comes with limitations. The locusts are told not to harm vegetation or those who have not received the mark of the beast (9:4), but power was given to them to torment anyone else for up to five months, but not to kill them (9:5, 10). These demon locusts even have a “king” over them, whose identification appears to be Satan (9:11) himself. Yet for all his power, Satan cannot unleash his demonic creatures to do any more damage than God permits.
The same is true for the beast (the antichrist) in Revelation 13, whom the dragon, Satan, calls up from the abyss of the sea (Rev 12:17b–13:18). Once again, however, the power and authority of the beast is limited by God. John says authority was given to the beast to act for only three and a half years (13:5), given to him over all of the people of the earth, even authority to “make war on the saints and to conquer them” (13:7).
One more remarkable example of God’s control is the destruction of “Babylon,” the immoral governing influence in the world during this end time. Though this “Babylon” leads the world away from Christ and seeks to murder Christians, she is utterly destroyed by none other than the beast and his government (Rev 17:16), who equally desire to destroy the Lord and his people. Why would one diabolical evil destroy another? John explains, “For God has put it into their hearts to carry out his purpose by being of one mind and handing over their royal power to the beast, until the words of God are fulfilled” (Rev 17:17). So God’s control extends even to working in the hearts of wicked rulers to lead them to join together to carry out his purpose. And even though it is the government of the beast (antichrist) who carries out the attack, the angelic voice declares in chapter 18, “And she will be burned up with fire; for mighty is the Lord God who has judged her” (18:8b).
The sovereign control of God is one of the most assuring truths for suffering or persecuted believers. Because we are tempted to imagine frightening events in the world and our own trials as if they are an impersonal storm that threatens with random force, so that we are at the mercy of our trouble. But this understanding betrays our limited view of what is actually happening. The truth is, we are never at the mercy of our trouble, but our trouble is at the mercy of an almighty God. God is in complete control of every storm, both the fact of the storm and the severity of the storm. Those who would desire to harm us have no power except by God, for his good purpose. Nothing is random and nothing gets through to us without God’s wise and measured care.
This is my Father’s world:
O let me ne’er forget
That though the wrong seems oft so strong,
God is the Ruler yet.
(Maltbie D. Babcock, 1901)
As discussed by Greg Stiekes on The Steve Noble Show on June 9