Cashing in on Fear
I’d like to begin with a list of headlines, all of which have one thing in common:
- “Is America coming to an end?”
- “Stock market might crash within days”
- “The Greatest Catastrophe since the Great Depression”
What do these all have in common? They all come from the year 2011. Do you remember the “Fiscal Cliff” that was going to send us into financial oblivion? Or the Arab Spring? Or the Tsunami that destroyed a nuclear reactor in Japan? Here we are nine years later, and despite what we were told, the earth remains on its axis and Jesus remains on His throne.
The media sure knows how to cash in on fear. But you know what—it’s not just the media. It’s the church too. Last week, I came across a billboard: “Is the Corona Virus a sign from God? Find out this Sunday at _____ Church.” Whether it’s the Corona Virus of 2020 or the election of 2016 or the Blood Moons of 2015 or the Fiscal Cliff of 2011 or the Great Recession of 2008 or the Indonesian Tsunami of 2004 or the towers falling in 2001 or the turning of the Millennium a year before… there’s always something to freak out about. Of course, I expect the world to freak out. But it makes me sad that the church seems more freaked out than the world.
Today, we’re starting a new series in the Book of Revelation called, “Behind the Scenes.” I have to be honest with you – when God first started speaking to me about a series on Revelation, I felt like this (meme: “I ain’t going there.”) I didn’t want to be the fear-mongering pastor, and I also don’t have all my interpretations sorted out. Like you, I still have questions. But here’s what God spoke to my spirit, the more I prayed about this series, beginning last year.
First, He said that a lack of certainty is not a liability, but an asset (for reasons I’ll explain later). If you feel bewildered by Revelation – don’t fret – so has every theologian with an ounce of humility. If you feel scared by Revelation – don’t fret – this Book is not about evoking fear, but easing it, as we’ll soon see.
The second thing God spoke was that this is a year and a season in which the Book of Revelation will become increasingly relevant for believers. If we’re afraid of this Book, we’ll miss out on the blessing promised to those who read it, as we are soon to do.
So with that introduction, let’s jump in to chapter 1. We’ll start with the first three verses as an introduction, and then we’ll jump down toward the end of the chapter as a way of focusing on the forest and not the trees. Revelation 1:1.
The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants[a] the things that must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, 2 who bore witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, even to all that he saw. 3 Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near.
The Time is Near?
First, let’s talk about that word “near” – two thousand years doesn’t seem very “near”, does it? The Apostle Peter recognized that as Christ’s return tarried, this would increasingly become a problem. To this he offered us two bits of advice: (1) Time is relative to an eternal God, for whom a thousand years is as a day, and a day is as a thousand years (2 Pt. 3:4-9), and (2) We can hasten (or slow down) the timing of Christ’s return by our behavior (2 Pt. 3:12). We have to understand “near” from a divine perspective, not an impatient human one.
Behind the Scenes
Now, let’s talk about that opening phrase: “the revelation of Jesus Christ.” That word, “revelation,” comes from the Greek word “apocalypsus,” from which we get our English word, “Apocalypse.” In English, the word has come to refer to cataclysmic global events—and those are certainly present in the Book of Revelation—but the word itself in Greek doesn’t technically refer to those. “apocalypsus”, according to the Greek dictionary, means “unveiling.”
That’s why our series on the first 5 chapters of Revelation is titled, “Behind the Scenes.” God is giving us a backstage pass for the “unveiling” of Jesus Christ. There are two forms of this: first, the unveiling of His plan for setting the universe aright (i.e., the future); and second, the unveiling of Jesus Christ Himself. So let’s tackle these two “unveilings,” each in turn.
First, the unveiling of God’s plan for setting the Universe aright.
Setting the Universe aright of course means that war and poverty and death and evil will be completely eradicated. But the way biblical authors thought about this “right-setting” was not merely in terms of what would be done away with, but also in terms of what would be established: namely, that the two realms of heaven and earth would no longer be separate, but one. In Revelation 11:15, for instance, we read that when Jesus returns, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ, and He shall reign for ever and ever.” Later in Revelation, we see that the age we live in is consummated—not when human beings are zapped away to heaven—but rather, when the heavenly city (called the New Jerusalem) comes down from heaven to earth, “like a bride adorned for her husband”, and the two realms overlap. God’s vision for the future is a marriage of heaven and earth.
We would be naïve to think this “setting aright” will be simple and painless. Like a doctor re-setting a broken bone, the re-set of this broken world will require some sharp and sudden movements. These movements are detailed in Revelation 6-20. There are plagues, wars, famines, persecutions, earthquakes, hailstorms, and locust invasions. There’s also a dragon, a seven-headed beast rising out of the sea, a second beast rising out of the earth, and a giant prostitute seated upon many waters.
Understanding Apocalyptic Literature
This brings up another point, which we can make by coming back to that word, “apocalypsus”. Not only does this Greek word speak of the content of Revelation; it also speaks of its genre of literature. Throughout the Bible, we have some Books that were written as narrative, some as songs, some as letters, and some as prophecies. Revelation fits all of those elements in various parts, but the most prominent genre ascribed to this book is that of “apocalyptic” literature.
Apocalyptic literature began with the Old Testament Book of Daniel, and it continued with many extra-biblical Jewish writings, all the way into the second century AD. It was characterized by bizarre visions of global conflicts in heaven and on earth, and it was written to encourage suffering people that the One who is “behind the scenes” has it all under control.
It would be a huge mistake to be overly literalistic with these apocalyptic visions. They were never meant to be reduced to perfectly sequential timelines and flipcharts, but rather, to excite emotion and stir us from spiritual slumber—like waking up from a disturbingly vivid dream.
On the other hand, we also have to be careful of danger on the other side: just as we can be overly literalistic with these bizarre visions, we can just as well be overly dismissive—chocking the whole book up to symbolism, rather than wrestling with the realities being presented. Yes, there are symbols, but they are symbols of real figures and real events that have tremendous relevance for the church in every age, not least of which, the church in this age.
Be Careful Who You’re Listening To
So how do we avoid both extremes? Here’s my advice: be careful who you’re listening to.
Several years ago, a pastor wrote a book predicting there would be a cataclysmic economic downturn in the year 2015, as he pieced together biblical prophecy and American history. When the downturn didn’t happen, rather than apologizing, he doubled-down, and said he was right (because you can use statistics to prove anything). The same thing has happened with a slew of end-times preachers who’ve predicted various dates and revised them quietly, but without being humbled, they continue with total certainty, and people blindly follow them.
I get the appeal: in a world of paranoia, certainty sells. But we have to be careful about over-certainty. I don’t have a problem with connecting modern events and events from Revelation. But let’s have humility in our approach, and discernment in our study. For me personally, I don’t consume “end-times material” from people who speak with total certainty about the future, or who refuse to acknowledge their errors. Revelation predicts the future, but it’s not a crystal ball. His plan for setting the Universe aright is revealed in the form of apocalyptic visions that on one hand must be taken seriously, but on the other hand, must be considered humbly.
Revelation 1:9-20 – the Unveiling of Jesus Christ
Now let’s move to the second “unveiling” of Revelation: the unveiling of Jesus Christ Himself. Picking it up in verse 9, we’ll read through the end of the chapter:
9 I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. 10 I was in the Spirit on the Lord’s day, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet 11 saying, “Write what you see in a book and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus and to Smyrna and to Pergamum and to Thyatira and to Sardis and to Philadelphia and to Laodicea.” 12 Then I turned to see the voice that was speaking to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, 13 and in the midst of the lampstands one like a son of man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash around his chest. 14 The hairs of his head were white, like white wool, like snow. His eyes were like a flame of fire, 15 his feet were like burnished bronze, refined in a furnace, and his voice was like the roar of many waters. 16 In his right hand he held seven stars, from his mouth came a sharp two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining in full strength.17 When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, 18 and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. 19 Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this. 20 As for the mystery of the seven stars that you saw in my right hand, and the seven golden lampstands, the seven stars are the angels of the seven churches, and the seven lampstands are the seven churches.
Times of Tribulation
The first thing I want you to notice is in verse 9: John uses the word “tribulation” to describe what he and the church are ALREADY going through. In fact, he says, this is part-and-parcel of what it means to be Christian. The Book of Acts uses the same word to describe the normal Christian life: “It is through many TRIBULATIONS that we enter the kingdom of God.”
A lot of Christians are terrified of the end times, and they’ve developed an entire theology around avoiding “tribulation.” We obsess over whether Jesus will return before, during, or after the “Great Tribulation” of Revelation 7:14. I’m not suggesting this question is irrelevant. What I am saying is that our obsession is perhaps a manifestation of a deeper problem in our hearts. If you were to ask John, “Will Christians go through the Great Tribulation,” he’d likely say, “I’m already going through a great tribulation—I’m a nonagenarian living on a deserted island!” If you asked believers today in Iran or North Korea, they’d say something similar. The American church is the wealthiest and perhaps most comfortable church in human history. And it seems that our primary concern, too often, is not, “How can I extend the reign of Jesus across the earth,” but rather, “How can I ensure that Jesus will keep me comfortable?” Regardless of what happens with the “Great Tribulation”—we’ll talk about that in a few weeks—we can rest assured of two things: (1) if you’re faithful to Jesus, you will suffer tribulation that can sometimes be characterized as “great”, and (2) in one way or another, God does find a way to care for His people in times of tribulation (2 Pt. 2:4-10).
When Jesus says to “fear not” He doesn’t follow it by saying, “…because the Tribulation won’t be so bad.” John wasn’t afraid of Tribulation (or Corona Virus, or 2020 elections, or running out of toilet paper at Costco!). John was afraid of—get this!—Jesus. He was afraid of Jesus. So afraid that he fell at Jesus’ feet like a dead man. And for good reason. It’s not every day that you see a man with fiery eyes and a sword for a tongue!
John’s Vision of Jesus
Now let’s talk about this vision. And I’ll remind you once again: this is a vision. Jesus doesn’t have a literal sword coming out of His mouth. As a symbol, it speaks of the way His Word pierces our heart. His hair represents wisdom and connects Him with “the Ancient of Days”, who is God the Father, depicted in Daniel 7 (go back and read it later). Jesus’ fiery eyes represent His penetrating knowledge of every sin, his robe and sash represent His royalty and priestly service. His feet like burnished bronze portray Him as One who passed through the furnace of judgment on the Cross, unscathed. And the voice like many waters communicates how overwhelmed John must have felt at hearing His voice—like someone sitting at the base of Niagara falls. If you saw all of these things, do you think you might fall to the ground like a dead person, too?
The Book of Revelation—while it IS an unveiling of God’s plan for setting the Universe aright, even more than that, it is the revelation of Jesus Christ. Not just the weak and wimpy Jesus depicted in Renaissance paintings. Not the tame and relevant Jesus of modern evangelicalism. But the Jesus who died and is alive again, who is the first and the last, and who holds the keys to Death and Hades because He actually suffered both for us, and still came out breathing. If we make Revelation ALL about the future, and not about Jesus—not only have we missed the point, but we’ve missed the solution to what we fear.
The Solution to Fear – the Fear of God
The solution to fear is not certainty. You’ll never have that on this side of heaven. The solution to fear is having a greater fear that displaces it.
I want you to imagine, for instance, that you have a fear of going bankrupt in the next 6 months. And then one day, for some extremely strange reason, you wake up in the morning to discover a rattlesnake under your pillow. What happens in that moment to your fear of bankruptcy? It’s entirely replaced by a far greater fear.
That’s the way it works with the fear of God: it displaces all other fears. What is the fear of God? Here’s one definition: To fear God is to be overwhelmed by God’s power and presence. To fear God is to be overwhelmed by God’s power and presence. That’s what’s happening to John, when he falls to the ground like a dead man.
The fear of God has fallen on hard times in modern times. People say that the God of the Old Testament wanted us to fear Him, but the God of the New Testament is different. Unfortunately, that idea—that the God of the Old is different from the God of the New Testament—was condemned as a heresy (“Marcionism”) by the early church. Further, many verses in the New Testament tell us to fear God, including four times in the Book of Revelation alone.
Why are we so afraid of the fear of God? I think it comes back to the American idea that (even if we wouldn’t word it quite this way) God exists to make me comfortable. Fear is uncomfortable. And it even seems incompatible with love. But this is because we misunderstand: there’s a right kind of “fear of God” and a wrong kind of “fear of God.”
The Right and Wrong Way to Fear God
Let’s come back to verse 17. There, John is told to “fear not.” Why? Is it because it was wrong for John to be overwhelmed by Jesus’ power and presence? Is Jesus telling John, “Stop being such a wimp, I’m really not that glorious?” No, Jesus is correcting the wrong kind of fear.
It’s like when Moses says to the people of Israel—after having a similar knee-knocking encounter with God on Mount Sinai—“Don’t be afraid. This happened so that the fear of God would keep you from sinning.” There’s a wrong kind of fear (“don’t be afraid”) and a right kind of fear (“fear of God keeps you from sinning”). The wrong kind of fear is that God will smite you. The right kind of fear is that merely being in God’s presence overwhelms us. The wrong kind of fear makes you want to flee, as if from a rattlesnake; the right kind of fear makes you want to stay, as if in the presence of One who transcends.
Fearing God is being overwhelmed with awe by His power and His presence. It is not the same as “fear that God will smite us.” As it says in Proverbs 28:14: “Happy is he who fears God always.” Or Psalm 130:4: “Forgiveness belongs to You—therefore You are feared.” Why would we “fear” a forgiving God? And why would we be happy at the very moment we feel fear? Perhaps we should ask the disciples, who were more afraid AFTER Jesus calmed the storm than they were before He calmed it (Mk. 4:35-41). The reason we fear God is that His power and presence overwhelm us with holy wonder.
This is the fear that displaces all others.
What are you truly afraid of?
In the context of Revelation, I think all of this helps us understand more clearly how to process the “end times.” The real question to ask ourselves is, “What are you truly afraid of?”—not having enough food? Or the One with fiery eyes and a voice like the roar of many waters? Are you more afraid of Death or the One who conquered it? Are you more afraid of the storm or Him who calms it?
Whatever you fear the most is the idol you truly worship. If you fear the loss of comfort, you worship comfort. If you fear the loss of health or money or prestige or a certain relationship, you worship those things. No amount of fear-management can overcome idolatry. God is the fear that displaces all others, and He does so by assuming His rightful place on the throne of our heart, in response to faith and repentance.
The Shining Lampstand of God’s Church
Nobody knows what’s going to happen with this Coronavirus, just like nobody knows what will happen with the 2020 elections or anything else. The future is always uncertain. What IS certain, is that the One who holds the keys to Death and Hades walks not in the aisles of your nearest Costco, but among the lampstands—that is, His church. If you want more of God’s presence, go where He is. He’s in the gathering of the saints on the Lord’s Day. And He’s out on the mission field, shining His light.
Our lampstand shines brightest when the world turns dark. Sociologist Rodney Stark explains Christianity’s growth on account of this very phenomenon. When two plagues each wiped out a third of the Roman Empire’s population—one in 165AD, and the other in 251 AD—Christians showed their faith, not by running from plagues (like everyone else, including the physicians), but running to them—to nurse the sick and honor the dead with burial. This happened repeatedly throughout history. It happened in the Black Plague, that killed 60% of Europe. It happened in the 16th century, when Martin Luther risked his life to pastor his dying flock.
Brian Palmer is an atheist journalist who writes for Slate, and during the Ebola outbreak a few years ago, he wrote an article called, “In Medicine We Trust.” In it, he expresses discomfort with the fact that the majority of those risking their lives to care for dying victims are missionaries. Without these missionaries, he says, healthcare in Africa would fall apart. Here’s how he finishes the article: As an atheist, I try to make choices based on evidence and reason. So until we’re finally ready to invest heavily in secular medicine for Africa, I suggest we stand aside and let God do His work.
If the church is as scared as the rest of the world, our lampstand won’t shine. But if we worship the One who holds the keys to Death and Hades, it changes the way we view death, and it changes the way the world views God.
This is not to suggest we should be reckless or unprepared. There’s a world of difference between preparation and paranoia. What I am saying, is that the unveiling of Jesus Christ is both the cause of fear and also the cure for it. Put differently, the only way to “fear not” is to displace our fears with the one that is greater.