(This is Day 29 in our 30-day examination of the Bible’s Book of Revelation.)
Remember: John’s psychedelic vision is not an announcement that God plans to ruin the ecology or destroy the world; John’s vision is meant to supply his readers with fresh heart.
“God will do anything, enlist anything, to come to the aid of his people. ‘Therefore,’ says John to his readers, ‘however beaten-up you might be, don’t be beaten-down. God has not abandoned you to your suffering.'”
— Canadian preacher and Wesleyan theologian Victor Shepherd
Years ago I was “surfing the Net,” as they say, and came across a wonderful online theological source that features the writings, sermons and speeches of Canadian Victor Shepherd.
I’ve featured some of his notable quotes and insights here at the blog often, though it’s been a while.
Shepherd once gave a sermon on Revelation 16:1-23 that I saved in what I call my “keeper file” where I store quotes and sermons and articles and speeches that I might refer to for sourcing or research some day.
For this series on Revelation I came across Shepherd’s aforementioned sermon and I can see why I kept it: it’s definitely a “keeper,” chock full of incisive material on Revelation.
That said, it’s dated: Shepherd wrote and delivered this sermon way back in 1992, when the Soviet Union was still an “evil empire” to contend with!
As out-dated as it may be, the sermon still says a lot about oppressive, evil empires of the sort that John of Patmos and the early Christians had to contend with.
What I like about Dr. Shepherd’s work is that he knows his world history–he brings impressive historical context and depth to everything he writes or says.
So with no further of that old ado, here are some excerpts from Shepherd’s take on Revelation.
Or if you have the time and inclination, I urge you to read the whole wonderful sermon here.
The book of Revelation has long been the happy hunting-ground of extremists. They reach into it and pull out any religious oddity at all. They do so inasmuch as they fail to understand something crucial.
John does not communicate with his readers through abstract argument. John communicates by means of pictures. His pictures are vivid; no one could ever call them vague or bland or unremarkable.
Think, for instance, of the picture of a dragon which fumes and spews and vomits at the same time as it slays Christ’s people. Not only are the pictures vivid; they are also immense, grotesque, and surreal. They would appear to come out of a science fiction novel or a horror movie.
In fact most of John’s pictures he has borrowed from the books of Ezekiel and Daniel. Despite the fact that modern readers, at least initially, find John’s pictures off-putting, John expected his readers to find immense comfort and help and hope in the pictures.
You see, John’s first readers were undergoing savage persecution; he wrote as he did to provide comfort and help and hope for people whose suffering was intense and relentless.
As a matter of fact there are three books in the New Testament which were written specifically to sustain persecuted Christians: the gospel of Mark, the first epistle of Peter, and the book of Revelation.
In the year 65 Nero, the Roman emperor, began brutalizing Christians in a vicious outburst worse than anything which had victimized Christians so far. Several years later Nero committed suicide.
By the year 95 another Roman emperor, Domitian, picked up where Nero had left off. Persecution fell on Christians once again. The book of Revelation was written to provide comfort, help and hope to Christ’s people during Domitian’s reign of terror.
* * *
(ON TYRANNY IN THE 20TH CENTURY)
Think of the tyranny we have known in our own century, as well as the torture and torment connected with that tyranny. Stalin, Hitler, Pot Pol (the leader of the Khmer Rouge who liquidated millions), Mao Tse Tung, General Pinochet of Chile. What have all these men done? How many “ordinary” people cozied up to them, pretended to agree to the tyrant’s tyranny, were used by them, only to become inwardly what they thought they were only pretending to outwardly?
In other words, how many supporters of these wicked men came to be stamped with the mark of the beast themselves? By way of answering my own question I often think of Klaus Barbie, known as “the butcher of Lyon”. Barbie deported thousands of French Jews to extermination camps and tortured indescribably the leaders of the French resistance movement. When Barbie was finally arrested (only three or four years ago), tried and convicted, prior to being sentenced he was asked if he had any regrets. “Yes, there is something I regret”, he replied, “I regret that there is still a Jew alive in the world.”
(ON JOHN’S VISION & THE PLAGUES ON EGYPT IN EXODUS)
In his psychedelic vision John imagines those men and women who play up to tyrannical Rome breaking out into loathsome, foul-smelling sores. Plainly John’s vision is rooted in the plagues of Egypt.
You know the story of the seven plagues of Egypt. Pharaoh had enslaved and brutalized the Israelite people in Egypt. Through assorted instrumentalities God had pleaded with Pharaoh to let God’s people go free. Pharaoh had refused. And so another plague. After each refusal, another plague.
God’s purpose in all of this was not to torment Pharaoh; God’s purpose is to relieve the oppressed and liberate the enslaved. In much the same way, says John, God is going to shake the leaders and supporters of tyrannical Rome in order that Christ’s people might be relieved.
We must be aware of a most significant difference between the plagues visited upon Pharaoh and the judgement of God visited upon tyrannical rulers in Rome and ever since Rome. The plagues visited upon Pharaoh were sent in order to induce him to repent.
“Change, Pharaoh”, God shouts at him, “Change, repent, while you have opportunity to do so, and let my people go.”
The judgement visited upon Rome, however, is different. It does not aim at inducing Rome to repent.
John has no expectation that Rome will ever repent. None. Tyrants, together with their flunkies, plan on remaining tyrannical indefinitely; they are not about to change anything.
ON ‘FOUl SPIRITS,’ NAZI GERMANY & ARMAGEDDON
John has even more to tell us. In his vision he speaks of “foul spirits like frogs”. The foul spirits represent the stream of court flattery and lying propaganda which saturate any anti-human state. Oppressive regimes invariably use lying propaganda in order to deceive people and control them.
Court flattery is the grovelling seen in functionaries who think that flattery will keep them alive when sincere people are put away. John tells us that the foul spirits — flattery and propaganda — eventually stir up the kings of the world and provoke them into an alliance against Rome. Of course! Propaganda incites a people to overstep itself. Flattery blinds leaders and people to reality. The blind leaders incite a blind people who overstep themselves, and their aggression galvanizes opposition from other nations.
Within our own lifetime we need think only of Nazi Germany. The foul spirits (flattery and propaganda); opposition provoked in other nations; the alliance against Germany. The result? — the Reich that was supposed to last a thousand years as a demonstration of human superiority lasted only a few years and acquainted the world with new levels of depravity.
And when Nazi Germany had crumbled, when its kingdom was in darkness (in the words of John) the faithful people of God who had groaned within it groaned no more. Centuries earlier John had said to beleaguered Christians, “However beaten-up you might be, don’t be beaten-down, because God has not forgotten you and will deliver you.”
Armageddon, then, is not the world-ending nuclear holocaust which some people say God has ordained. Armageddon is any battle which the oppressors of this world provoke with other nations. Armageddon is the conflict in which other nations, provoked by a tyranny which has overstepped itself, become agents of God in releasing and relieving his people. …
Because the descendants of Pharaoh and Nero and Domitian are still with us, and because they still torment all who point them out and resist them, John’s psychedelic tract will always be relevant.
EDEN RESTORED & THE TREE OF lIFE
In concluding this sermon I want to leave something very important with you. Today we have probed together one chapter in a tract which aims at putting fresh heart in God’s people. Nonetheless, the chapter we have examined sounds utterly bleak, doesn’t it.
Ancient Rome, Mediaeval Arabia, Napoleonic France, Nazi Germany, the USSR — written off, all of them, since all of them have been the beast. All have had the fifth bowl of John’s vision emptied on them, and their kingdoms, without exception, have become darkness. Written off.
No! We must look to the last chapter of the book of Revelation. Listen to its opening words:
Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal,
flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the
street of the city; also, on the other side of the river, the tree of
life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month;
and the leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.
John’s vision, ultimately, is of Eden restored. And into this paradise restored come the nations; to be sure, they are wounded, bloody, bleeding still from their former hostility to the Messiah-Lamb. Nonetheless, the tree of life, in this restored Eden, is for the healing of the nations.
Today’s take-away from Victor Shepherd is:
29. “Because the descendants of Pharaoh and Nero and Domitian are still with us, and because they still torment all who point them out and resist them, John’s psychedelic tract will always be relevant.”