Growing up, I went to prophecy conferences. Barely into my teen years, I devoured the long seminars talking about a one-world government, how the financial sector of the European Union was setting up for a single worldwide currency, and how the content of Revelation could play out in excruciating detail.
In the middle of all the talk of end-times, one emotion slid to the surface over and over: satisfaction. After everything evil in the world, it just felt good to feed my imagination with the picture of God slamming the wicked with hailstones. Vindication would surge through my veins by the end of the conference. Sure, rough times would come with the end-of-days, but the wicked in the world would get their due. And I smiled at the thought.
For years I nursed that picture of the end of all things. Through Bible college and into seminary I talked about God’s kindness and love—that is until I got to the last part of the story. Then judgment filled my words and teaching, just liked it filled my imagination. The eschaton would bring justice—vindication for God’s people—and I wanted to make that point exceedingly clear.
Life and time passed, however, and when my Bible study asked me to walk them through the book of Revelation one fall evening, I realized just how out of my depth I was. I could draw Tribulation charts and talk about current events, but I wasn’t sure I could take a group of people to John’s letter to the churches and give them something to actually apply to their lives.
So I did what any good Bible student would do—I opened to the daunting book of the Revelation and began to read. Early on, I began to realize that the picture of judgment I had so carefully cultivated was crumbling. I saw in the pages of Revelation a call not to violent victory but to sacrificial death.
I had missed a small but important detail, when I read the book before. It was, first and foremost, a letter. The book of the Revelation of Jesus Christ was first a letter to the churches of the late first-century. And, by extension, a letter to all churches.
The opening pages called the church to be overcomers. And that part I liked. But the means of overcoming that quickly became apparent shook the foundations of my end-time convictions.
In the fifth chapter of Revelation, John relays a vision he had of the throne room of heaven. The Father—creator and sustainer of all life—sat upon a throne, surrounded by the saints and angels. In his hand he held a scroll. When the call came for one who would be worthy to take that scroll and execute the Father’s will, John didn’t see a conqueror like I’d imagine.
He saw a slain lamb.
Throughout the book of Revelation, John presents a consistent picture: Whenever God pounds the earth in violent judgment, the people living in the kingdom of darkness follow in Pharaoh’ footsteps: they harden their hearts.
With each new round of judgment, it becomes increasingly clear that something has to change if the hearts of the world are going to soften. It’s not until the first two rounds of cosmic bombardment cease that we finally get to hear what’s in the scroll that the Lamb took from the hand of the Father. And the contents are surprising.
In Revelation 10, the angel who took the opened scroll from the hand of Christ calls a halt to the judgments, commanding that the seven thunders not be released on the earth (10:4). Instead, John receives instruction to prophesy the contents of God’s will. And for the first time, we hear a promise of success—of changed hearts.
Chapter eleven unpacks the contents of God’s will for dealing with the kingdom of darkness. Instead of round after round of fiery judgment, the Father calls witnesses into the heart of darkness itself. Those faithful witnesses follow in the example of the slain Lamb—speaking the truth and offering their very lives to validate their message.
It’s not until the witnesses of the Lamb die at the hands of the kingdom of darkness that the people trapped within darkness’s grasp begin to see light. When the witness return to life after the manner of Jesus himself, the pattern of hardened hearts breaks. Instead of railing against God for his judgment, the people who see the life, death, and resurrection of the witnesses give him glory.
Over and over throughout his letter, John makes the point to the churches that their victory over the kingdom of darkness will not come with war or violence or judgment, but through self-sacrifice, even death.
We are the people of the Lamb. And that Lamb was victorious not through war but his own death. We, too, then, face the kingdom of darkness by offering our very lives to validate the message about Jesus. He is worthy of being followed. So worthy that death itself holds no power over us.
The call of the Christian life is the call to die. To die to self, yes, but to also hold life so very lightly that giving it up is a choice we willingly make. The end of the kingdom of darkness will come through God’s final judgment, but to the people chained within, we offer hope by dying. We overcome by laying down our lives.
We die first. And then comes the end.