Lesson 9: The Political Implications of Revelation

The Seven Headed Serpent of Revelation from Luther's BibleAt first, it seems John sees the relationship between the church and state differently than Jesus and Paul. Jesus, in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, tells Christians to give Caesar what is Caesar’s in response to a question about paying taxes. In John, he tells Pilate that he does not pose a threat to the Roman government. Paul also seems to agree that the government and church have different functions. He writes that Christians should support the governing authorities, because God uses them to provide the order and peace necessary for proclaiming the Gospel safely.

The Prophet John, on the other hand, thinks that the Church should have nothing to do with the Roman government. It is an agent of Satan whose peace and order depend on violence and greed. John is exiled for telling his churches to “Come out of her,” because those who co-operate with the empire share in its corruption.

On reflection, you realize John is simply maintaining the implications of proclaiming “Jesus is Lord” in a different context. The prophet believes the situation has changed when emperor worship is used as an indication of loyalty to Roman rule in his seven communities. He pictures the empire’s military power as a beast that violently oppresses and suppresses any opposition and its economic system as a whore who takes advantage of the poor in order to satisfy the greed of the wealthy for “dainties.” He slams his point home by noting that the famed sea trade includes dealing in human souls when it sells slaves.

Today, neither Paul’s “Obey the governing authorities” nor John’s “Come out of her” serve as absolutes in our democratic society. After the Lutheran experience in Nazi Germany, we are keenly aware the two-kingdom approach is grossly inadequate. However, refusing to participate in modern government rejects our responsibility for being a voice in the community’s deliberations about how to pursue a common good. Faith, hope, and love are passionately concerned about decisions we make about our lives in this world.

Nonetheless, John makes clear that Paul’s confession that Jesus is Lord might prohibit us from participating in a particular government or engaging in specific governmental affairs. The Prophet teaches us to use the Word of God for unveiling modern forms of blasphemy, violence, and arrogance. He challenges any kind of loyalty that professes “my country, right or wrong.” He forces us to ask whether Christians can serve in any kind of military service or in certain kinds of economic occupations.

Many who read his work believe it unveils how much the political power of modern international corporations parallels that of the Roman Empire. These institutions treat the market as god, often use military might to defend their investments, often use the law to protect the rich, and often allow greed to trump sustainability.

Strangely, most of us can read John’s words and still miss that “Come out of her” is only part of his message. His call to come out of Old Rome is greatly overpowered by his invitation to come into the New Jerusalem. From the beginning to the end of his prophecy, John invites all to come to the living waters of the baptismal community. The Church is depicted throughout as an alternative community where God’s love rather than the empire’s power is practiced. This sacrificial love promises the eternal peace and order that the empire can never hope to deliver. Rome is already going down; God’s church will remain forever.

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4 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Kerry Walters says:

    Just what I needed to hear in these troubled days!!

  2. John Myers says:

    Thank you for this wonderful summary of John’s Revelation and helping us to understand what is often over-thought, made very complicated, and subject to ideas found between lines. I am part of a group at Grace Lutheran (Westminster) who are reading “The Forgotten Luther”, edited by Carter Lindberg and Paul Wee, that looks to the Common Chest and Luther’s strong positions in this area that mysteriously have disappeared as we in the west practice the Lutheran tradition. As we discuss the impacts on the poor of the cabal of big government, big business, and the lobbyist machinery that makes it work, I am struck by the similarities with what John is trying to say in Revelations. While we are not living in Rome today, much of the same elements are there in a different form. As Christians, we are forced to answer these same difficult questions today – so long as we are paying attention to what is going on. Example, are we trading in human souls souls today? We may not allow slavery, but when we expect others in less fortunate places to work in conditions we refuse to accept ourselves – are we not Pharisees of another time? When we buy products made this way, are we not part of the problem? These questions relate to not only this lesson, but also the book we are studying. Fascinating parallels.

    • Fritz says:

      You echo my response to Revelation, John. In fact, one of my friends recommended Lindberg a few months ago. I found his study of the common chest very helpful even though Luther was frustrated by his society’s inability to practice it. Still it offers the right direction. The same guy recommended N T Wright’s Simply Jesus that I think presents the same issues. Thanks

  3. Lupe says:

    I don’t know what would happen to a true Prophet in times like ours. The world is going in dangerous directions with no voice, either int the wilderness or the metropolis to cry loud enough to bring us to our senses. Love, Lupe

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