Throughout this semester, I am teaching a weekly seminar at our church called Apocalypse: Now. My aim is to expose the laypeople of our church to the social, historical, and literary context of the book and its contemporary application for theology, ethics, and ministry. I am doing my best to steer clear of "time-lines" and conjectures about the future, hoping to get a glimpse of what the original hearers of John's Apocalypse would have heard and understood. As I prepare for a study of the themes and theology of the Apocalypse, I thought it would be interesting to present some of my findings on the missiological content of the book. Let me know what you think.
The work of Christian witness and the purpose of Christian witnesses (Gk. martys and martyres) are prevalent, interconnected themes throughout the Apocalypse. Between the horizons of Patmos, as far as John can see, the rise of the Roman Empire and the persecution of the church portend the second coming of Jesus Christ and the redemption of all things. With urgency, therefore, John exhorts seven churches in Asia to remain faithful while undergoing various kinds of testing and to remember the crucial battle between God and evil as this epoch is brought to completion. The witnesses of God are key figures in this prophetic exhortation, for they both carry out the continued mission of God to the earth and reveal the fate of all those desiring to conquer and overcome the powers of evil. While there are many possible facets of this topic, due to space constraints, this short study will offer merely an introduction to these martyres and their key role in God’s mission in the Apocalypse.
The Mission of God in the Apocalypse?
For readers even remotely familiar with the Apocalypse of John, the possibility of finding evidence of the mission of God within its cryptic pages is likely met with serious skepticism. With image after image of mystery and dread, including giant angels, a red dragon, ghoulish demons, tremendous violence, and great bloodshed, how is one to believe that John has in mind the mission of God? While it may be difficult to discern at first, it is my contention that the mission of God for the redemption of the world is intimately connected to the contents of the Apocalypse. In fact, if one looks carefully, one will discover that it is the driving motivation behind John’s work.
Although an extensive treatment of this issue cannot be given here, it will be helpful at least to survey the contents of Revelation for evidence of this claim. The prologue to the Apocalypse declares a blessing upon those who hear and “obey” its message (Rev. 1:3), and the epilogue contains an “invitation” of sorts calling out the readers to “Come!” in light of what they have heard (22:17). The first scene of worship in the Apocalypse depicts “every creature in heaven, on earth, under the earth, on the sea, and everything in them,” giving homage and praise to the One seated on the throne and to the Lamb (5:13). John envisions the people of God as a “vast multitude from every nation, tribe, people, and language, which no one could number, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (7:9). The severe judgments of God upon the earth are shown to be for the purpose of repentance among the nations (9:20; 16:11). John himself is ordered to “prophesy” against “many peoples, nations, languages, and kings,” with a message that is sweet in the mouth yet bitter in the stomach (10:9-11).
Perhaps the most explicitly mission-focused aspects of the Apocalypse are found in the announcement of the “eternal gospel” in 14:7, which calls all of the earth’s inhabitants to “fear God and give him glory,” and the ministry of the “two witnesses” in 11:3-14, which results in thousands of people giving glory to God. There is also sufficient evidence to suggest that the literarily climactic portion of the Apocalypse is in chapters 13 and 14, where the reader is urged to determine their allegiance, whether to “the beast” of Satan or to “the Lamb” of God (Lee 1998: 174, 193-194). Finally, the Apocalypse concludes with visions of God’s new creation and New Jerusalem, in which “the nations will walk” and the “kings of the earth will bring their glory” (21:24). While this brief survey does not approach a full demonstration of God’s mission within the Apocalypse, it does provide a sufficient foundation from which we may proceed with an introduction to the martyres and their ministry in this mission of God.
Introducing the Martyres of the Apocalypse
The word translated “witness” (Gk. martys), which is the root for the English word “martyr,” occurs numerous times throughout the Apocalypse (Rev. 1:5, 9; 2:13; 3:14; 11:3; 17:6). It is closely connected, both lexically and thematically, to the words “testimony” (Gk. martyria) and “testify” (Gk. martyreō) (6:9; 11:7; 12:11; 12:17; 19:10; 20:4). In John’s Apocalypse, all three of these terms converge around the picture of faithful followers of Christ giving testimony to the Gospel and willingly enduring suffering and death for the sake of this message.
Within John’s context, the ministry of faithful witnesses is of vital import, for they testify in light of the nearness of Christ’s return and do so knowing that the time for repentance is short. Ultimately, it is through the suffering of the martyres that many from “all peoples, tribes, languages, and nations” will turn to God in repentance (Rev. 11:9, 13). To understand the witnesses’ ministry in the Apocalypse, two themes are important: (1) the witnesses conquer by the word of their testimony, and (2) the witnesses testify for the conversion of the nations.
Conquering by the Word of Their Testimony
The faithful martyres of the Apocalypse testify on behalf of Jesus Christ, who is portrayed chiefly as triumphant yet “slaughtered lamb” (Rev. 5:6). This is significant for the identity of the witnesses, for the object of their witness is One who triumphed only through suffering and death. In John’s mind, the slaughtered Lamb sets the standard for his witnesses, both as the content of their witness (maybe similar to Paul’s assertion, “I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified,” [1 Cor. 2:2]) and as the supreme example for them to follow (Jesus is even called “the faithful witness” in the prologue [Rev. 1:5]). Just as the Lamb conquered through his death, so will those who seek to follow his example and proclaim his message to the world. The conquering Lamb empowers his witnesses to conquer also, but only as they willingly accept the same fate as their Master (2:7, 11, 17, 28; 3:5, 12, 21; 12:11; 15:2; 21:7).
The conquering of the witnesses is clarified by the explanation that it is achieved “by the word of their testimony” (12:11). This concept is described in several parallel ways in the Apocalypse, including the specific pairing of their testimony with the “word of God” and “Jesus” (1:9; 6:9; 12:17; 19:10; 20:4). For John, then, it seems that the testimony of the witnesses is first made up of the word of God and Jesus himself. If the witnesses “conquer” by this testimony, as 12:11 says, then the testimony itself seems to have the power to conquer evil. Furthermore, though, John also sees the “testimony” of the witnesses as made up of their faithful lives and martyr deaths. While in the eyes of the world, the faithful witnesses are defeated when they suffer and die, in the eyes of heaven, they are triumphant because they share in the victory of the Lamb whom they serve (Koester 2001: 123).
Testifying for the Conversion of the Nations
Ultimately, however, the testimony of the martyres is not for the purpose of glorious martyrdom. The Apocalypse makes clear that the purpose of God is for the inhabitants of the earth to repent, including his churches, in order that all peoples, tribes, nations, and languages may worship God and the Lamb (see Bauckham 1993: 98-104). Nowhere is this better illustrated in the Apocalypse than the ministry of the “two witnesses” in 11:3-14, a symbolic story that is considered by most scholars to be representative of the community of God as they bear witness in faithfulness to Christ (see Caird 1966: 133-140; Beale 1999: 572-608; and Koester 2001: 108-111).
John receives a spoken message, presumably from God, in Rev. 11:3 that announces the empowerment of “two witnesses.” God gives them power to prophesy for a limited time and their testimony is accompanied by sorrow and mourning for the sins of the earth. The witnesses’ description—“two olive trees and two lampstands that stand before the Lord of the earth” (11:4)—connects them with a similar vision found in Zech. 4:2-6. It appears that a similar meaning is intended here, but with a broader application: the Holy Spirit will be upon God’s witnesses as they prophesy faithfully upon the earth.
These witnesses of God perform miraculous signs and wonders, much like those of Moses and Elijah, and they are able to hold off the powers of evil with their testimony (11:5-6). Eventually, however, John reveals that the witnesses are “conquered” by evil (“the beast,” 11:7) and killed. Although people from all “peoples, tribes, languages, and nations” rejoice over the death of God’s witnesses (11:8-10), after three days the witnesses are miraculously resurrected and taken up into heaven (11:11-12).
Perhaps what is most fascinating about this story, however, is what follows the resurrection of the two witnesses. John hears that a violent earthquake shakes the city in which the witnesses prophesied and one-tenth of the city falls, while 7,000 people are killed (11:13). This would seem like a tremendous tragedy, except for the unexpected thing that happens next: “The survivors were fearful and gave glory to the God of heaven.” Throughout the Apocalypse, there is no repentance in response to the manifold judgments of God (see esp. 9:20-21 and 16:9), yet through the triumph of God’s witnesses through their testimony, death, and vindication, innumerable people from all nations of the earth “[give] glory to the God of heaven.”
Some seriously doubt that this event portrays true repentance (see esp. Beale 1999: 607), yet the comparison of this verse with the proclamation of the “eternal gospel” in 14:7 seems to recommend this interpretation. If the angel in 14:7 exhorts the earth to “fear God and give him glory,” in response to the gospel, then the response of individuals from all “peoples, tribes, languages, and nations” who do just that in 11:13 is justifiably viewed as authentic repentance. This affirms the ultimate purpose of God’s witnesses in the Apocalypse: to testify faithfully, even painfully and sacrificially, for the conversion of the nations to the Lamb (Bauckham 1993: 86-87).
Keeping in mind that the story of the two witnesses is symbolic, we must affirm that nations will not necessarily see the literal resurrection of God’s people prior to their repentance. Instead, through the faithful suffering and death of the witnesses, the nations will perceive the truth of their testimony, especially the truth of Christ’s triumph over death.
As we have seen in this brief study, the witnesses of God and their testimony among the nations (Gk. martys and martyres) are key features the Apocalypse. For John and the churches to which he wrote, the nearness of Christ’s return and the judgment that he will bring makes the faithfulness of God’s witnesses vitally important. Although the mission of God is not normally considered within the enigmatic visions of the Apocalypse, we have seen that, at the very least, John was very interested with the response of the world to the Lamb of God, for references to the universality of the gospel and the universal scope of God’s plan are interspersed throughout the book. In John’s view, the witnesses of God both carry out the continued mission of God to the earth and reveal the fate of all those desiring to conquer and overcome the powers of evil. Further, as was illustrated above, the witnesses of the Apocalypse conquer evil by the word of their testimony and testify for the conversion of the nations.
While witnesses to Christ in the western world are largely ignorant of the kinds of persecutions and sufferings portrayed in the Apocalypse, such experiences are commonplace in the lives of fellow-witnesses in all times and places throughout other parts of the world. Indeed, it seems that the annals of church history affirm that the suffering of God’s faithful witnesses is the customary occurrence, while the enjoyment of peace and prosperity remains relatively uncommon. For those faithful witnesses suffering persecution and death in their testimony throughout the world, it may be a powerful comfort to view their experience in the context of the Apocalypse. For therein, suffering witnesses are viewed not only as conquerors over evil by their testimony to Christ, but also as key components in the completion of God’s mission: the conversion of the nations.
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Luter, A. B. and E. H. McGowin. “The Earth-Dwellers and the Heaven-Dwellers: An Overlooked Interpretive Key to the Apocalypse,” Faith and Mission, 20.1 (2003) 3-18.
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(Picture: William Wolff, The Witnesses of the Apocalypse, woodcut, 17½ x 24, 1975)