“Only fools and madmen are positive in their interpretations of the Apocalypse.”—Charles H. Spurgeon
Given these end times discussions, have you ever considered the Christmas story found in the book of Revelation? It is probably a version that you won’t see at your local church or school or in a Claymation Christmas special:
“The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that he might devour her child the moment it was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. And her child was snatched up to God and to His throne. The woman fled into the desert to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days. And there was war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon, and the dragon and his angels fought back. But he was not strong enough, and they lost their place in heaven. The great dragon was hurled down—that ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, who leads the whole world astray. He was hurled to the earth, and his angels with him.” (Revelation 12:4-9)
Unlike the traditional Christmas story found in the Gospels of St. Matthew and St. Luke, St. John reveals a different perspective on the birth, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus—an unseen spiritual battle far removed from most people’s thinking.
And with December 21 now come and gone, it might be a great opportunity for Christians to discuss what Scripture says not only about Jesus’ first coming, but His second coming as well.
Derived from the Greek word apokalypsis—to uncover—apocalypse is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “an imminent cosmic cataclysm in which God destroys the ruling powers of evil and raises the righteous to life in a messianic kingdom.”
But what do Americans really believe?
In the last Pew Forum Religion Poll (2006), when asked if they “believed in the second coming of Jesus Christ,” 95 percent of evangelicals responded “yes,” while only 70 percent of Catholics and 60 percent of mainline Protestants responded in the affirmative. As to whether the time of Christ’s return is revealed in the Bible, 61 percent of evangelicals, 73 percent of Catholics, and 81 percent of mainline Protestants said “no.”
If you had polled these groups in earlier times, the results would have been quite different. As a matter of fact, the book of Revelation gave great encouragement and comfort to struggling believers in the early church through the Lord’s vision to St. John.
But what message does Revelation have for us today?
In light of the Pew Forum poll and the shaky theology emanating from Hollywood, believers would do well to heed Spurgeon’s above advice and consider what is clear: the themes of assurance, warning, and promise.
First, assurance. Like many teens in the Eighties, I had a great fear of death—particularly by nuclear holocaust. Growing up in a ground zero city, and watching B-movies like War Games (in which a young Matthew Broderick breaks into a military computer and unknowingly almost starts World War III), didn’t help!
Coming to faith in Jesus in ninth grade, however, dramatically changed my worldview. Events that once brought great fear and grief now could be seen in light of the sovereignty of God. As the late Philadelphia pastor James Montgomery Boice once wrote, “False christs? Wars? Apostasy? Hatred? Betrayal? Wickedness? How can we not be troubled so long as we have hearts to feel and minds to grieve over those who are suffering? The answer—the only possible answer—is that, in spite of these things, God is in control of history and will yet work all things out in accordance with his just and all-wise plan for humanity.”
And this is the assurance that groups like World Vision, Samaritan’s Purse, Compassion International, and the church in general bring, during natural disasters and other tragic events. As they provide shelter, medical care, food, and water to the thousands in need, they also share an eternal hope that transcends this fallen world, echoing the Psalmist’s cry: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble.”
Second, a warning. While trusting in Christ brings a freedom from the fear of death and suffering in this world, Scripture is clear that Christians will nevertheless face persecution and trials. The last century alone saw the greatest number of martyrs for the Christian faith. Whether it be life-or-death situations in countries hostile to their faith, or the verbal maligning experienced by those humbly presenting their beliefs, believers face trials of many kinds. While most Americans will never face a martyr’s death, many will be tested both physically and socially.
Consider 2012 Olympic gymnast gold medalist Gabby Douglas. From the racism and bullying she experienced as an African-American gymnast, to the multiple injuries and long periods away from her family, Gabby’s faith was crucial to her perseverance. In her new book, “Grace, Gold & Glory,” Gabby shares how she almost gave up her training months before the Olympics, the importance of her relationship with Christ, and the power of prayer that got her to the Games.
As St. James declared, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. . . . [And] blessed is the man who perseveres under trial, because when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life that God has promised to those who love him.”
Third, a promise. The book of Revelation proclaims that believers are more than conquerors through the victory of Jesus Christ.The One who overcomes sin, death, and the devil once and for all brings true joy, peace and hope.Thus, it doesn’t matter how bleak the future looks, for Christ will one day make all things new—this is our eternal hope. As Christ shared with his disciples the night before His crucifixion, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
Sadly, but not surprisingly, this is the last message viewers will find in movies about the end times. Instead of victory, moviegoers over the years have witnessed the wrath of “mother nature” in environmental disaster films, the power of “alien races” and their devastating acts of judgment, or “man-made devastation” reaping what was sown by unrepentant mankind.
Although we don’t know the day or the hour, the Apostles’ Creed reminds us that Jesus “will come again to judge the living and the dead.” St. Peter put it this way, “But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare. Since everything will be destroyed in this way, what kind of people ought you to be? You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming.”
If we do this, when we face the Judgment, it will be not with our Judge, but with our mediator and advocate—Jesus Christ—secured by His blood and rescued by His mercy.
In his famous essay “The Weight of Glory,” C.S. Lewis aptly describes the implications of this eternal truth: “There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.”
John A. Murray is the Headmaster of The Fourth Presbyterian School in Potomac, Md.