Like many other people I know, my life is full of creature comforts I have come not only to enjoy but expect. Good coffee, air-conditioning, the world at my fingertips on my smart phone and tablet, push button everything in the car, a wardrobe of clothes to cover the seasons, and food in the fridge that is readily replenished when needed.
Of course none of this is very exceptional; it’s just par for the course for many of us in the West. And that’s the problem. With so much comfort on tap, we’re not so good at discomfort. We don’t really know how to suffer. In true male fashion, if I get a cold I feel like I’m going to die. If I get a headache I pop a pill to take it away. If my ordered daily schedule is disrupted by something not working, like the internet, then I’m totally thrown out.
With so much comfort on tap, we’re not so good at discomfort. We don’t really know how to suffer.
At a recent conference, however, I was struck by Peter Adam saying that we will need to learn how to suffer, and we need to teach our children how to suffer, because increased pressure is likely to come. The days of Christians in Australia (and many other parts of the West) being respected for their faith have largely gone. Increasingly we will have to fight for the faith, and we may well have to suffer for it.
Preparing to Suffer
So how do we teach ourselves and our children to suffer for the gospel when we are surrounded by so much comfort and ease? It’s not easy but I have found help in an unusual place: the book of Revelation.
It may seem like a strange place to go for help. Revelation can be such a confusing book with its bizarre images, symbolic numbers, dragons and beasts, massive wars, hideous evil, last second rescues, and unlikely heroes. But while its message is presented unusually, it is designed to help us live gospel lives in difficult days.
Revelation was written by the apostle John from the prison island of Patmos where there weren’t too many creature comforts. And it was written to followers of Jesus who were facing increasing persecution for their faith. The Roman Empire was marked by widespread idolatry, emperor worship and state-sanctioned immorality. Believers were marginalised and facing mounting pressure to conform to the world around them. The Revelation given to John was designed to steel them to stand firm as faithful witnesses to Christ even if that meant being exiled as he was or, worse still, fed to the lions or lit up as a human torch.
As the Revelation (that is, the “unveiling”) helped them suffer for Christ, so it can help us. For one thing, like those first readers, we need the realism of Revelation. It is a book about struggle, war, suffering and martyrdom. It is not in any way naively triumphalistic. It does not promote a sugary, sentimental Christianity. Rather, it prepares us for battle and strengthens us to persevere as we remember that we are not in heaven yet.
Secondly, Revelation teaches us to think corporately. It is not about ‘me and Jesus’ but about Christ and his bride, the church. It is not about how to have better quiet times, or how to build your marriage. It is not a “how to” book at all. It is about the church of Christ on earth, viewed from a heavenly perspective. It therefore helps us think more corporately and less individualistically, which is a great aid to bearing hardship for the cause of Christ.
Thirdly, Revelation is marvellously designed to instil hope. The corporate realism promoted in Revelation is not pessimistic. It is full of the expectation of glory. If it warns us of Satan’s power, it also proclaims to us the greater power of Christ. If it sobers us with pictures of the unholy trinity of the dragon, the land beast and the sea beast, it also shows us that they are but a pale reflection of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If it depicts war in heaven, it also speaks of a day when it will be heaven on earth. Revelation is a book to inspire and enthuse. It gives a reason to go on and a cause for which to fight. When times are easy people are motivated by trivialities but in times of war they are motivated by great and worthy causes. Revelation motivates us in this latter way and gives us reason to fight on.
Revelation is marvellously designed to instil hope. If it sobers us with pictures of the unholy trinity of the dragon, the land beast and the sea beast, it also shows us that they are but a pale reflection of God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
Revelation also teaches the church to be God-ward in its orientation. This book lifts our eyes above what we can see, above what we are currently experiencing, above what things look like now, so that we see things as God sees them. It teaches us to see that he is enthroned on high, sovereign over all. Creatures, earthly and heavenly, surround his throne, singing his praises. Revelation is the New Testament praise book, full of robust worship that is generated by knowing God’s greatness.
A Gospel Pageant
Revelation presents these motivations to costly discipleship in picture language. As Vern Poythress says, “Revelation is a picture book, not a puzzle book” (The Returning King, Phillipsburg: P&R, 2000, 13). So we need to read it and preach it seeing the large, graphic gospel pictures it paints. Allan Chapple calls it “a gospel pageant, a series of vivid and dramatic tableaus that depict the great truths of the gospel in a gripping and powerful way. It is as though the apostle’s message was taken to Disney studios and turned it into an animated movie” (A Gospel Pageant, Mosaic Press, 2013, 5).
To benefit from Revelation we need to constantly look at the big pictures. The details are often confusing and controversial. But the big pictures are largely clear. As Poythress says, “Don’t become preoccupied with isolated details. Rather, become engrossed in the overall story. Praise the Lord. Cheer for the saints. Detest the Beast. Long for the final victory” (13).
Alan Chapple’s book is actually a great little guide to doing that.
As we read Revelation this way we begin to live in a world very different to the world of creature comforts we so easily become addicted to. Revelation re-orients us. Its pictures of war and victory, of idolatry and worship, of judgment and glory, of earth and heaven, of the prostitution and the Bride, of the Lamb and the Lion, of now and forever, have Spirit inspired power to re-shape our ambitions and expectations. It lifts us out of our myopic, insular preoccupation with comfort, and engages us in a cosmic battle of good and evil.
It was written to help first century disciples follow Jesus no matter what the cost. And it can help twenty-first century disciples in the same way. If you need to learn how to suffer for the gospel, and if you need to teach your children and perhaps your church how to do so as well, I suggest the following prescription: a regular dose of Revelation reality.