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).