I think about death a lot. It comes out in my writing, but also in my obsession with searching through Web MD. Despite my history with the shrouded monster, I pretend like I’m never going to die. Or, at least, that my death is a red “x” marked on the calendar some fifty years future. It’s convenient, actually. Like the deadlines for seminary papers I saved to the last minute of finals week, death-as-a-calendar-item lets me put off important things. Valuable things. Things actually worth doing. ‘Cause so long as I have months or years between me and that red “x,” I still have time for at least one more Netflix show.
Except everyone knows death doesn’t work that way. We’re not promised years or months or days. Everyone knows it. I should know it. But I don’t live that way. The truth is when we die we’ll die in our present. There’ll never be a last-sleep before we wake up to dying-day. A mistimed merge onto the highway may be all the prelude we get to our final moments.
Death comes in an instant. And in that instant we’ll know we’re going to die.
So, how do we live with that kind of anxiety-filled reality? We either insulate ourselves with lies like the red “x” on the calendar or we live paranoid.
My attitude started to change last year when I started teaching through the book of Revelation. I found in the pages of that mysterious apocalypse something more than antichrists and first-century descriptions of helicopters. I found a reason to die.
Reading Revelation Theologically
Unlike the other eleven disciples who all met early ends, John lived out his days in exile. He’s the only one we know to reach the “x.” Prior to his death, John received from Jesus the final revelation of God’s will for his people. And in the letter John penned to the churches both ancient and modern, he believed that every believer would face a special kind of death.
And so he prepared them for it—or at least wrote a letter to do so. I don’t think John intended his Letter of the Revelation to alleviate the fear of death in a thirty-something dad living in Texas. But the theology contained in the letter did that for me.
I’ll tell you how.
If you’re anything like me and grew up under the heavy influence of dispensational eschatology, Revelation has always been a book about the future. We love our hot takes about the most recent eclipse or blood moon, or how the recent move of the United States Embassy to Jerusalem heralds the swift return of Jesus.
Revelation gets lost in that eschatological fervor and only really comes out in sermons or lessons when we need something to bolster our end-times talk. Or, as the case may be, to talk about Jesus spewing out the occasional lukewarm apathetic.
But the book of the Revelation was never intended to be the hotbed of contentious future-predicting we’ve made it. John intended to convey the final revelation of God through Jesus to the scattered believers to prepare them for death.
If you don’t believe me, let me make my point real quick.
A Guidebook for Overcomers
John opens his letter with a description of his reason for writing. Jesus showed up on John’s forgotten rock and told the solitary disciple that he had a message for the churches. John then conveys that message in seven parts. Scholars have already made a big deal about the number seven in the Bible, and I’ll not add to their words other than to say it’s a big deal here too.
Each church Jesus addressed stands as an archetype of believers living under the dominion of the kingdom of darkness. Different believers have varying relationships with that kingdom—some are too buddy-buddy for Jesus’s liking while others have maintained their faithfulness to their own harm.
The conclusion of each letter, however, carries Jesus’s main point to the church both ancient and modern: Overcome the kingdom of darkness. The balance of Revelation explains the “how” and “why” behind Jesus’s challenges to the churches. If we’re going to overcome this kingdom of darkness, we need a way to pull it off.
Most of us find ourselves living in some variation of that dark dominion. Even in the incredibly privileged United States we can see both the threat and the reality of a world that’s long rebelled against God’s good commands.
So when we’re offered the quest of overcoming that kingdom of darkness, most of us would get a little excited. After all, isn’t it time that the good guys won for once? That justice and peace reigned? If that’s on the other side of overcoming the kingdom of darkness, then I’m all for it.
As John moves through his letter, he carefully stokes that desire in the hearts of his readers—we want to win for once. We want the bad guys to hurt. After all, isn’t that what God promised?
I’m convinced the sensationalism of the dispensational eschatology codified in the Left Behind novels got its start in our desire for the bad guys to pay. There’s something cathartic in reading (or watching) God hammer the other side with blood and fire and death. They finally got what’s coming to them, we say, and in doing so echo the sentiments of John’s first readers.
Think about it—Christians at the time of John’s writing were facing increasing persecution from the Roman Empire. All of the promises of Jesus’s swift return were running a bit threadbare. Christians were dying. The good guys were losing. And, for the first-century listeners to John’s letter, the depiction of the Almighty’s throne room was pretty nice.
The idea that the God whom Christians serve sits enthroned on lightning holding power in his hands feels pretty good when the Emperor of Rome is breathing down believers’ necks. And after the Technicolor description of God’s power, John describes a call for one powerful enough to take the scroll he’s holding and execute its contents. It’s a moment in Revelation that’s supposed to stroke our desire for a badass conqueror to show up and kick Rome’s butt. And it does a pretty good job:
Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” (Revelation 5:1–5, ESV)
The Worthy One comes on the scene with a pretty impressive stat sheet. The picture of Jesus as the Lion of Judah and founder of the Davidic dynasty seems to legitimize his feat of conquering. As readers of Revelation, John wants us to want Jesus to be a badass conqueror. But then John flips the script and shows us what he actually sees.
The conquering lion is actually a slain lamb.
And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. (Revelation 5:6–7, ESV)
Jesus’s position as overcomer—the one who’s worthy to execute the will of God himself—comes as a result not of his military prowess but of his sacrificial death. And therein lies the theological argument of Revelation.
How do we overcome the kingdom of darkness? By dying.
Throughout the balance of his letter, John will make the case over and over again that a straight-out assault of the kingdom of darkness from a place of power will never actually accomplish God’s will. Quite the opposite. After the seals and the trumpets, God calls it quits on the heavy artillery barrage he’s thrown at the kingdom of darkness because it’s only resulted in hardened hearts.
Instead, the act that wins over people living in the kingdom of darkness is the martyrdom of the witnesses—the church. Just as Jesus became the overcomer worthy of executing God’s will through his sacrificial death, so too do God’s people become overcomers by embracing their deaths. And their deaths mean something. By submitting to the only true weapon the kingdom of darkness has, they show the complete powerlessness of that kingdom. And by standing by their testimony of Jesus’s worthiness even to death, they validate the gospel.
Live to Die
In his letter, John expects every believer to face the martyr’s end. The point of the Christian life is to die.
Most of us won’t face an executioner’s blade. For all intents and purposes, we can pretend there’s a red “x” waiting out there in the future. But the theology of Revelation calls every believer to live with an attitude that’s willing to give up everything—including life itself—in order to testify that Jesus is worth following.
Personally, I don’t set the bar that high.
I usually set it at “up to but not including getting cut off in traffic.” I run from death of all kinds—death of my comfort, death of my time, death of control over my world. But the call of Jesus is to run toward those deaths.
And it’s in practicing the daily deaths of small things that we prepare to face the ends of our lives when that moment comes. Instead of freezing in fear or begging for one more day, we’ll see the path we’ve walked many times before—into death.
And at the end of that road waits the slain lamb, Jesus, holding out a conqueror’s welcome.
Cover art by Matthew Fassnacht.