The Second Beatitude in Revelation

In the previous post, I explored the opening beatitude in Revelation and the blessing attached to it for those who read, hear, and keep or obey God’s words in this book.  Now I turn our attention to the second beatitude, which goes against the grain of expectation at first glance.  Before I explain this statement a little more, let me provide the text itself:

“And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.’  ‘Blessed indeed,’ says the Spirit, ‘that they may rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them'” (Revelation 14:13, ESV)!

When it comes to God’s promises of blessing, I have hunch that many do not expect the believer’s death as counted among them.  In fact, the above text reserves the blessing only for those who die in the Lord.  The second half of the blessing promises rest for those who experience death, and that they will leave behind a legacy of their faithfulness.  These dead saints will not be forgotten.  I find a strange hope welling up within me as I ponder this beatitude.  My righteous deeds leave an impact or an imprint upon the sphere that I occupy.  This seems to light a fire within my soul to continue persevering with the people and the circumstances that I face and will face in the days to come.  Of course, I believe that this beatitude begs the exploration of the preceding context.

Some New Testament (NT) scholars see the fourteenth chapter of Revelation as part of a unit that includes the twelfth and thirteenth chapters. Both the twelfth and the thirteenth chapters chronicle the rise of the unholy trinity: the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet.  These three wage war against the saints, who are the people of God, for an appointed period of time; consequently, some of these followers of Christ will die for their profession of faith (Rev. 12:14, 17; 13:5-7, 15, ESV).  It must be said here that the first century, historical context of the book of Revelation is directly relevant.  There is a debate among NT scholars regarding the date of Revelation’s writing.  The majority embrace a late date during the reign of Domitian, who ruled from 81-95 A.D.; however, there is a vocal minority who assert an earlier date near the end of Nero’s reign, who ruled from 54-68 A.D.

Both of the reigns of Nero and Domitian are known for their persecution of Christians in the first century.  Historians point out that Domitian’s reign fueled terror all across the Roman Empire.  No one was safe from this man’s megalomania, which can be read here and here.  Given history’s view of Domitian and the historical context of the book of Revelation, it is not surprising to expect doubts or fears to creep into the first century believers.  Will their deeds follow them?  Does obedience to Christ matter given the real penalty of death for professing such belief?  In who or what could these early Christians hope? Thus, this second beatitude occurs at a crucial time in history and within the narrative of Revelation.  According to tradition, and this is open to debate, the apostle John experienced the horror of being burnt in oil prior to his exile on the island of Patmos.  The point behind all of this is that the beatitude recorded by the apostle spoke directly to his actual experiences of persecution along with the other early Christians.

If the events recorded in the book of Revelation pertain solely to the future, then I fail to see how the apostle John and the early Christians could have derived any real encouragement from this book.  This is not to suggest that portions of John’s text lack a future end-time fulfillment; however, in no way do I want swing the other way that says the book of Revelation has been fulfilled in the past.  I want to suggest that there might be a tension between past, present, and future fulfillment.  John and the early Christians of his day faced horrific persecution at the hands of the Romans, i.e. burning by oil, being fed to the lions in the Roman Coliseum, and crucifixion.  It is important to see the genuine hope held out to those believers in John’s day through the blessing of dying in the Lord (Rev. 14:13, ESV).  Our brothers and sisters under Domitian’s reign were always on the run for their lives.  They were the hunted, who had no rest in this life.  In the Lord, all of this would be overturned by his grace and mercy.

Where does this leave us today?  Like I said earlier, this second beatitude occurs at a key juncture in the narrative.  The rising tide of persecution coincides with the rise of the unholy trinity as depicted in Revelation chapters twelve through fourteen. This second beatitude for dying in the Lord serves to encourage believers in the midst of intense persecution all throughout the church age.  Someone might argue that this is a false blessing of hope because it occurs in the future instead of the present. My response to this objection is that the believer’s death or Christ’s second coming terminates suffering for the believer forever.  This is not true for those outside of the Lord, whose suffering continues forever and ever (Rev. 14:9-11, ESV).  When faithful ministers and lay persons leave us in death, they leave behind a legacy for those who follow in their footsteps.  We can hope and trust in the Lord to provide and preserve his church.

Lastly, I must mention at this point that this second beatitude does not come out of the ether.  Back in the book of Psalms, there dwells the following verse: From oppression and violence he redeems their life, and precious is their blood in his sight” (Psalm 72:14; see Psalm 116:15, ESV).  John’s hope of deliverance from persecution, like the first century Christians, has its roots in the Old Testament (OT).  There is a direct link between the past and the present, the old and the new.  Psalm 72 reveals an old hope of deliverance from oppression for God’s people in the Old Covenant; however, this old hope lies at the core of this second beatitude for God’s people in John’s day and in our day because it flows from the transcendent one, who is everlasting.  It is my contention that the apostle John alludes to Psalm 72 in order to inspire hope and trust in the God of the OT and the NT on behalf of the early Christians and every believer who reads, hears, and keeps the words of Revelation (Rev. 1:3, ESV).

“At the age of twelve, before I had had one full year of formal schooling, I had a conception of life that no experience would ever erase, a predilection for what was real that no argument could ever gainsay, a sense of the world that was mine and mine alone, a notion as to what life meant that no education could ever alter, a conviction that the meaning of living came only when one was struggling to wring a meaning out of meaningless suffering.

“At the age of twelve I had an attitude toward life that was to endure, that was to make me seek those areas of living that would keep it alive, that was to make me skeptical of everything while seeking everything, tolerant of all and yet critical.  The spirit I had caught gave me insight into the sufferings of others, made me gravitate toward hose whose feelings were like my own, made me sit for hours while others told me of their lives, made me strangely tender and cruel, violent and peaceful.”

(Richard Wright, Black Boy, Chpt. 3, p 112, 1945, 1966 with Afterword)

At the Age of Twelve

The First Beatitude in Revelation

For some, the notion that the book of Revelation has beatitudes, let alone seven of them, might sound a little surprising.  Normally, most readers of the New Testament associate that sort of thing with Jesus’ sermon on the mount as recorded by the apostle Matthew (Matt. 5:1-12, cf Luke 6:20-23, ESV).  Like I mentioned in my introductory post, the beatitudes in Revelation are one of the things that the Holy Spirit showed me and refused to let me forget.  There is so much in the last book of the bible that garners attention.  All the beasts, dragons, demons, and angels take center stage along with the prophetic symbolism regarding the events depicted in this unusual book.  These things distracted my heart and mind from seeing the seven beatitudes.  The fact that there are seven of them in the book of Revelation indicates theological significance.  If seven is symbolic for perfection, then it suggests a perfect offer of blessing from God through the person of Christ as administered by the Holy Spirit.

What do I mean by the phrase, “a perfect offer of blessing from God?”  Before I supply an answer, I do not want to suggest that the spiritual blessings in Christ have a strict expiration date for either this present age or the age to come (Ephesians 1:3-6, 2:4-7, ESV).  It is true that those who remain outside of Christ (or the unjust) will never experience these blessings in this life or in the next.  In fact, God’s offer of Christ terminates for the unjust at either their death or at the close of this age.  The reality for those in Christ is the opposite as the spiritual blessings begin breaking into their lives in this life.  At the dawn of the new day, the spiritual blessings bloom into such fullness that “no eye has seen, no ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Corinthians 2:9; cf Isaiah 64:4, ESV).

Now, here is my answer to the meaning of the phrase a perfect offer of blessing.  It refers to Jesus, the Son of God.  This is the same reason that the apostle Paul writes to the Corinthian churches in his second letter: “For all the promises of God find their Yes in [Christ].  That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Cor. 1:20, ESV).  Every promise of blessing from God the Father finds its ultimate fulfillment in union with Christ.  There is no other way for anyone to enjoy them.  It is essential to keep Jesus at the center for these spiritual blessings.  This helps to maintain balance and perspective over the course of one’s life.  In keeping with this line of thought, here is the first beatitude from Revelation:

“Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near” (Revelation 1:3, ESV).

If I identify with Christ, then this beatitude illustrates how to demonstrate it.  The apostle John records in this passage that reading, hearing, and keeping the words (obeying it) of Revelation bless those who engage in these activities.  Let me take this one step further.  There is a blessing for reading aloud the book of Revelation that is separate from hearing it and from keeping it.  If I sit back and chew on this statement, then it stirs up many questions.  How does reading the last book of the New Testament bless the reader?  How does it bless the hearer or the keeper of it?  What is it about the book of Revelation that causes the Spirit of God to pronounce a blessing through the apostle John to those who read it, hear it, and keep it?  I want to stress this point because this beatitude occurs before any of the exhortations, warnings, visions and prophecies.  It seems to me that this emphasizes something unique or precious about the book of Revelation.

Allow me to venture into some uncharted territory as I offer some answers to the above questions.  At this point, it is essential to introduce the context that precedes the beatitude under consideration.  The first words of the book of Revelation state the following:  “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place…” (Rev. 1:1a, ESV).  This means that the book of Revelation is about Jesus, the Son of God, who received this revelation from God the Father.  It is the second part of that sentence, which blows my mind.  Everything in the book of Revelation flows from the Father heart of God toward the Son, who discloses this revelation to an angel, who makes it known to the apostle John (Rev. 1:1, ESV).  This is the unbroken chain of communication, which starts with the Father.

When the apostle John writes in the third person about how he bears witness to the word of God and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, he certifies the trustworthiness of the contents within the book of Revelation (Rev. 1:2, ESV).   John identifies the words that follow as having their origin in God the Father, which testify about Jesus or God the Son.  From this, I glean two key points: first, the Father aims to bear witness about the Son; and second, the content of the Father’s revelation given to the Son has a direct impact upon the lives of their servants and the entire created order (Rev. 1:1b, 7, ESV).  This shows the Father’s love and concern for those proclaiming and serving his Son, Jesus Christ; however, it also reveals the Son’s love and concern for those who become his disciples.  Later on in the book of Revelation, the heavenly host surrounding the throne of God worships the Son for his actions in redeeming a people for God (Rev. 5:9, ESV).

Because the first beatitude in Revelation declares a blessing upon the reader, the hearer, and the keeper, this places God and his word in the preeminent position.  What this demonstrates is an old exhortation to the people of the old covenant that the Spirit of God applies to the new covenant people.  For example, the following words spoken by God through Moses echoes the beatitude in Revelation: “…If you will diligently listen to the voice of the Lord your God, and do that which is right in his eyes, and give ear to his commandments and keep all his statutes, I will put none of the diseases on you that I put on the Egyptians…” (Exodus 15:26, ESV).  Thousands of years separate Moses from John, and the apostle from God’s people living today; however, the commands to listen to God’s voice, to keep his word, and to obey it transcend all eras while they apply to God’s people from all ages.  I think the important lesson in all of this is that the Father offers blessing and cursing through his word.

Jesus is the Father’s supreme offer of blessing to his people.  It is also the case that rejecting the Son places one under the severest judgment. This notion finds expression in the Penteteuch with respect to the prophecy of a future prophet.  God reveals to Moses that he will raise up a prophet similar to him who will speak God’s words and in his name; consequently, the Lord states without equivocation that the one who refuses to listen to this prophet will be judged personally by him (Deuteronomy 18:18-19, ESV).  Both Peter and Stephen apply this prophecy to the person of Jesus Christ in the book of Acts; although, it is the former who makes mention of the judgment for rejecting the person of Christ (Acts 3:22-23, 7:37, ESV).  It seems to me that the Holy Spirit is quite clear in his exhortation to read, to hear, and to keep the words of the prophecy of the book of Revelation (Rev. 1:3, ESV).  The call is to sit at the feet of Jesus like Mary in order to choose the better part (Luke 10:39 & 42, ESV).

 

“To make such a testimony for righteousness before one nation or all nations, it was necessary to raise up a succession of chosen and endowed men, who holding the truth and maintaining the righteousness, should from age to age be God’s mouths unto men, and his faithful witnesses in the midst of men, to suffer and endure whatever might be laid upon them; according to whose treatment less or more afflictive, he might dispense his blessings or his curses upon men; in the event of whose utter rejection and extermination, he might bring down the judgment upon men.  This succession of witnesses in the midst of the days is the church.  

“Besides these living tongues and patient witnesses who were removed by death, it was necessary moreover to have a standing record which should contain the sum and substance of that to which every man was to testify and in the midst all change of time and space, and fluctuations of mortal things, preserve the unity, the continuity, and perpetuity of the Church, in the midst of the variety and infinite perplexity of the devil, the world, and the flesh: this standing record, this food for the spirit of these men, this bridle upon their tongue, we have in the Holy Scriptures.  

“It was necessary furthermore, to have a visible representation or unchanging body of that truth, which was to be testified to, that is, “the incarnation of the Son of God,” for the declaration of the righteousness which is by faith; in order that the mystery might come full before the observation of men, and be a witness against them, whether they would read the written word or not: this they had in the temple and sacrifice and Levitical priesthood of the former dispensation, and this we have now in the two sacraments of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and the Communion of Saints, who are partakers of Christ’s sufferings, and “fill up that which is wanting of these sufferings for his body’s sake, that is the church.”  These three great parts are necessary to express and embody that idea of witness and testimony for the conviction of the world which we believe to be the germinating principle of this preparatory dispensation.”

(Edward Irving, Preliminary Discourse, The Coming of the Messiah, written by Lacunza, M., translated by Irving, E., 1827)

Edward Irving on the Church, the Scriptures, and the Sacraments

Introduction – The Beatitudes in Revelation

The time has come to begin a new blog series.  It has been a few months since I immersed myself in a particular topic of the bible.  Lately, I have noticed an itch to zero in on something new and fresh.  Based on the title of my post, the subject is self explanatory.  Before I dive into it, I want to sketch a brief overview of the impetus of this series.  Many Christians harbor skewed views regarding the book of Revelation.  Some obsess over the symbolic imagery in order to pinpoint a timeline of future events.  Another group has reacted against this by refusing to read and study it due to the controversy over interpreting its symbolism.  Still others within Christendom avoid the book of Revelation like the plague simply out of neglect.  There may be other factions lurking within Christendom, but these are the most common.

When I decided to write a new blog series, I found myself drawn to the last book of the bible.  There are many reasons to do a series on the book of Revelation.  One can only imagine the litany of questions that my readers might ask themselves.  For example, what millennial position does Matthew hold?  Does he interpret the book literally, symbolically, or chronologically?  Is he a futurist, an historicist, an idealist, a preterist, or some hybrid of these perspectives?  If some of my followers desire to learn answers to those questions in this series, disappointment will set in pretty quick.  My focus with this series will not involve interpreting the Revelation of Jesus Christ (Revelation 1:1, ESV).  I apologize for any dismay that might cause, but my focus is very different.

One year ago, I read a slim, but dense book penned by Richard Bauckham called The Theology of the Book of Revelation.  I recommend the book for its successful attempt at demystifying the last book of the New Testament.  Bauckham largely succeeds in wresting the book of Revelation out from the grip of the sensational.  I did not agree with some of Bauckham’s interpretive conclusions, nor did I enjoy his convoluted writing style.  That being said, I gleaned some things about the book of Revelation that have remained with me ever since.  In fact, the topic of this series is one of those key lessons that I have been unable to shake.  I say this as someone who has been a Christian for over two decades.  This means that I have read the book of Revelation numerous times.  Somehow, the seven beatitudes escaped my notice.

There is an old saying, which goes as follows: “the best hiding place is in plain sight.”  The point being is that these seven statements of blessing were always present in the book of Revelation.  My attention or focus had been on other things such as the vivid images and the metaphors. Revelation really is an amazing piece of literature, which captures the imagination.  It took Bauckham’s book to open my eyes to these seven beatitudes.  They are easy to miss in a book filled with dragons, serpents, locust-demons, seals, trumpets, and I think everyone gets the picture. The pattern of seven figures prominently within the book of Revelation due to the seven churches, the seven seals, the seven trumpets, the seven bowls, and the seven beatitudes.  From my perspective, the latter is hardly discussed, and I aim to rectify that with this series.

Over the next week and a half, I will examine each Revelation beatitude in turn.  I believe that the Lord has some things to reveal that have remained hidden in plain sight.  May the Holy Spirit guide us through his word, and specifically, through the book of Revelation. Stay tuned for the next entry, which will cover the first beatitude in the opening prologue to the Revelation of Jesus Christ (Rev. 1:1, ESV).

“God’s call to Abram contained a double promise: that He would bless Abram, and that He would make him a blessing.  Both sides of the promise were related to God’s pledge to make of Abram’s seed a great nation (Gen. 12:2).  God would make Abram’s name great by the fact that He would raise up a great people of his descendants.  They would share the blessing that God gave to Abram, and Abram would be blessed by God’s blessing to them.

“Our understanding of blessing has faded with our awareness of the presence of God.  Blessing is the pronouncing of God’s favor.  It includes the gifts that God gives as the evidence of His love and favor, but blessing is more than what God gives.  It is the bond of favor that joins God’s people with Him.”

(Edmund Clowney, The Unfolding Mystery, “The Son of Abraham,” Chpt. 3, pp 48-49, 2013, 2nd ed.)

The Promise of Blessing to Abram