The Book of Revelation presents a beautiful image of what God is already doing for His children and what He will do for them in the future
Normally, people do not enjoy suffering. They fear it, hate, and try to avoid it. This is also true of Christians, who know that suffering is a result of sin and will be done away with in the future. One form of suffering is religious persecution, which in some cases may even lead to martyrdom.
However, believers who live in countries with strong legal protection and religious liberty tend to forget that suffering for Jesus’ sake is part of the Christians’ present destiny. Jesus predicted it (John 15:18–21; 16:2, 3). All the apostles suffered persecution and did not regard it as a “strange thing” (1 Peter 4:12).1 Those who do not experience persecution by non-Christians or other Christians may read Scripture, especially the Book of Revelation, with different eyes and in ways different from those who are confronted with this type of hardship. They may overlook the pervasive theme of persecution in John’s Apocalypse or reserve it for the last segment of earth’s history only. Yet such shortsightedness may also prevent the understanding and support of suffering brothers and sisters today and counting with the possibility that one day any Christian anywhere may be affected by the same kind of suffering. M. J. Gorman thinks that the current absence “of martyrs in the Western church may be welcome, but its accompanying amnesia of past martyrs and our ignorance of contemporary martyrs elsewhere in the world are tragic.”2
Persecution Language Permeating the Book of Revelation
A study of the Apocalypse on the topic of persecution furnishes interesting results. The first observation is that the Apocalypse contains many references to persecution and suffering. Although the word translated as “to persecute” is found only once in Revelation (12:13), the motif of persecution permeates the book. Specific words, phrases, and passages describe persecution and opposition to it. The persecution of the woman by the dragon is graphically and symbolically described in Revelation 12. For instance, the dragon attempts to drown the woman with water and sweep her away (12:15).
The term translated as “blood” is oftentimes found in contexts that highlight persecution and violent death. The blood of Jesus “released us from our sins” (1:5). The martyrs, whose blood was shed, cry out for justice (6:10); the harlot Babylon is drunk with the blood of the saints, the witnesses of Jesus (17:6; 18:24).
The significant beatitude “‘Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on!’” (14:13) refers to the faithful witnesses under persecution. Christians in Smyrna are called to be “‘faithful until death’” (2:10). True disciples of Christ do “‘not love their life even to death’” (12:11).
John participates in the “tribulation” that other Christians suffer (Rev. 1:9). The church in Smyrna had a good share of it (2:9, 10). The great multitude will come out of the great tribulation (7:14). In Revelation 2:10, a period of persecution is described with the term translated “to suffer” (2:10).
Jesus was slaughtered (Rev. 5:6, 9, 12) like a sacrificial animal. Some of His followers would also be slain/slaughtered (6:9), and others would be added to their number during the time directly preceding the Lord’s second coming. With these later martyrs, the term translated “to kill” is used (6:11). In Babylon “‘was found the blood of prophets and of saints and of all who have been slain on the earth’” (18:24).
Apart from being threatened with death, believers are exposed to economic boycott. They can no longer buy and sell (13:17) because they have refused to accept the mark of the beast (13:16). The dragon makes war against the remnant (12:17) through the sea beast (13:7) and the beast from the earth (vss. 11–17), and he overcomes them (vs. 7), at least temporarily. The battle of Armageddon (16:14, 16) will be the final showdown in historic time.
This short survey indicates the pervasiveness of the persecution motif in Revelation. It is found in the general introduction (1:1–8), the messages to the seven churches (1:9–3:22), the vision of the seals (4:1–8:1), the trumpets (8:2–11:18), the satanic trinity (11:19–14:20), and the extensive description of the seven last plagues (chapters 15–19). Traces are even found in the events following the Second Coming (20:1–22:5) and in the epilogue (22:6–21). In other words, persecution occurs in all parts of the Apocalypse.
Further Information on Persecution in Revelation
Information on the issue of persecution in John’s Apocalypse may be grouped under the following headings.
1. Persecution is not limited to one period in history.
This study works with a historicist approach to the interpretation of Revelation. Therefore, the question of which time periods the book indicates persecution is relevant.
It would be a mistake to limit persecution only to the first century. Revelation 12–14 presents a view of the conflict between Satan and Jesus as well as between Satan and the church. This part of the Apocalypse begins with the birth of the Messiah and ends with the second coming of Jesus. In Revelation 12, the persecution of the church through long periods of church history is clearly outlined. The time period is symbolized by 1,260 days, 42 months, or three-and-a-half times. This is supported by other parts of Revelation, for example the martyrs under the fifth seal (6:9–11) lived at a time prior to the heavenly signs of the Second Coming. Their existence points to persecution during human history, while “their brethren who were to be killed” (vs. 11) should be located during end-time events.
Sad as it is, persecution is not a rare phenomenon, occurring only occasionally, but is a fundamental part of human history. It seems that hostility and violence against other believers and non-believers is engrained in human nature and must be overcome by what Jesus calls a new-birth experience and a consistent walk with the Lord.
2. Persecution is both local and universal.
There is some scholarly discussion as to what extent Christians in the first century suffered persecution. Today many scholars would question a large-scale persecution of the Christian community in the first century A.D. However, they generally admit that local conflicts and persecution occurred in early church history. This is what is reflected in the first chapters of Revelation, which claim that some sort of persecution happened.
Tertullian wrote that “Nero was the first who attacked the Christian sect with the imperial sword.”3 While this statement may not necessarily point to empire-wide persecution, it supports the fact that local persecutions happened. Around A.D. 112, Pliny the Younger asked Emperor Trajan how he should deal with Christians. The policy was not to hunt down Christians. However, if they were reported to the authorities, they should “be punished [typically executed] simply for being Christians.”4
For the end time, John predicted a final universal persecution. He saw an apostate religious alliance, Babylon (Rev. 17:1–7), supported by a political alliance, the kings of the earth (vss. 2, 12, 13), making war against the people of God and therefore against the Lamb (vs. 14). So, the Apocalypse knows both local and universal persecutions.
3. Persecution may come from different sources.
The first references to persecution in the Book of Revelation—namely, the martyrdom of Jesus, the suffering of John, the persecution of the Christians in Smyrna, and the death of Antipas—are not directly attributed to a specific power. However, the historical situation of the first centuries A.D, the description of the passion of Christ in the Gospels, the imprisonment of Paul according to Acts, and his prison letters, as well as extra-biblical literature, indicate that at times the Roman Empire was instrumental in persecuting and killing Christians.
The letters to Smyrna and Philadelphia mention people who call themselves Jews but are not. Instead they were “a synagogue of Satan” (Rev. 2:9; 3:9). They are mentioned in the context of slander and persecution of Christians. Polycarp, a disciple of John and bishop of Smyrna, was later martyred in Smyrna. Jews were involved in his execution on a Sabbath.
Revelation 12 describes the persecution of the pure woman, the true people of God, by Satan in the time after Jesus’ ascension—that is, in the medieval and post-medieval periods. However, as the following chapter shows, Satan used human powers to carry out this persecution. The sea beast represents the great and powerful medieval church—the papal church.
The remnant of the woman (Rev. 12:17) and those who do not worship the beast and his image (13:14, 15; 14:9) are the final object of the dragon’s wrath prior to the Second Coming (chap. 14). The dragon will use the sea beast that comes out of the earth, that is, Protestant America, against them.
Thus, Revelation sees Satan as the major player behind all persecutions. He uses political powers such as the Roman Empire as well as religious entities such as Jews, non-Christian religions, and even Christian churches to persecute God’s people.
4. Persecution may come in different forms.
Revelation mentions physical persecution (12:13, 14), tribulation and suffering (1:9; 2:9, 10), economic boycott (13:17), and martyrdom (1:18; 2:10; 6:9, 10: 20:4). One wonders if the conflict with false teachers and deceptive doctrines, and the exploration of the deep things of Satan (2:24), may also border on persecution.
5. Persecution may be triggered by the witness of God’s people.
John uses the word translated as family quite frequently, surpassing all other New Testament authors. This word “family” includes the terms (1) usually translated “to bear witness/to testify” or “to be a witness”; (2) “testimony/witness” or “reputation”; and (3) “witness.” In the original language, it is the word from which the English term martyr is derived. A martyr is one who testifies to the truth with his or her life.
In the Apocalypse, “witness” refers to Jesus and His followers (Rev. 2:13; 17:6). “The witness of Jesus is the witness that he bore through his life, death, resurrection and exaltation. . . . The mission of the faithful is to share in the witness of Jesus (6, 9; 12, 17; 19, 10).”5 Jesus is the role model; He provided a pattern for the church to follow. G. R. Osborne notes: “The ‘witness’ of the believers is first a lifestyle of faithfulness to Christ and second a verbal witness during the period of their suffering. It is clear that the church at this final period of terrible persecution does not go into hiding so as to avoid the wrath of the beast but maintains its evangelistic effort to the very end.”6
Unfortunately, persecution and testifying or being a witness are oftentimes related in the sense that faithful witnesses have to suffer.
6. Persecution and following Jesus go together.
Revelation 14:4 mentions that the 144,000 follow the Lamb “wherever he goes.” The context of Revelation 14 refers to an extremely difficult situation of the persecution. Following Jesus means to leave behind what is hindering the Master’s call, to serve the Lord, and to reflect Jesus’ character, His way of dealing with people, His approach to commune with God the Father (Matt. 4:20, 22; 19:21, 27). But following Jesus includes also being willing to accept suffering (John 12:23–26; 13:36, 37; 21:19).
That persecution is normal, not a “strange thing” (1 Peter 4:12) for Christians; it must be expected. So, should Christians avoid persecution if they can? Yes. Should they avoid it all costs? No.
7. Persecution is triggered by the rejection of loyalty to human institutions.
The Apocalypse predicts a major conflict leading to persecution of loyal followers of Christ at the end of time. These events are still future from our present perspective and will surpass whatever has happened before in church history. The book describes a conflict between those who have the seal of God (Rev. 7:2–4) and those who accept the mark of the beast (13:16).
Those who receive this seal distance themselves from sin: They agree with God, keep His commandments, and resemble God in character. In the New Testament, sealing is associated with the reception of the Holy Spirit (Eph. 4:30). The sealed are God’s special property. They are not willing to compromise but remain loyal to the Lord as Daniel’s friends remained loyal even in the face of the fiery furnace.
8. Persecution is often portrayed in connection with the war motif.
In Revelation this connection is apparent. For instance, the 144,000 under the sixth seal who obviously have to go through the great time of trouble when the winds will be released (Rev. 7:1–4) are depicted as a Messianic army. Their counterpart is the demonic army of 200 million beings under the sixth trumpet (9:16). The conflict between Michael and the dragon is pictured as a war in heaven (12:7). The persecution of the remnant/saints by the dragon/sea beast is described as a war waged against them (12:17; 13:7). The last clash in conjunction with Christ’s second coming is the battle of Armageddon (16:16; 17:14; 19:11–21). However, these battles are spiritual rather than military in nature. Yet, even a spiritual war does not exclude persecution and death.
The war motif is part of the Great Controversy theme, which in Scripture is probably most clearly developed in John’s Apocalypse. Conflict and war occur on a personal, group, and cosmic level. In other words, conflict and war are not limited to planet Earth but are also found in the universe. God’s plan of salvation deals with all these levels of conflict. Richard Bauckham writes of “a conflict of cosmic proportions.”7
The death of the Messiah emphasizes how victory is won in this conflict. It is not by violence but by suffering. The weapon of the Lamb is the sword coming out of His mouth (Rev. 1:16; 2:12, 16; 19:15, 21), but this sword is the Word of God. As the Lamb triumphs through suffering, so do His followers. They are not involved in military battle or acts of violence, but in “nonviolent resistance.”8
9. Revelation points to the Christians’ reaction to persecution.
When persecution and distress occur, the question is: How can and do Christians cope with such a situation? There may be two interrelated forms of reaction. One is an intrapersonal reaction. The other is an external reaction that has to do with observable actions.
Typically, the exterior action is fight or flight. Physical fight on the part of the people of God is not an option in the Apocalypse. The followers of Christ do not use violence against violence. This leaves them only with the other option—namely, flight. Flight may be understood as moving to another geographical area. Flight may be partially reflected in the escape of the woman of Revelation 12 to the desert. But flight may also mean to go underground and form a subculture.
However, even persecution was not a reason for church members to abandon their Christian brothers and sisters. Revelation does not dwell much on communal support of persecuted fellow believers; yet this concept may be reflected in various places: (a) the church in Ephesus is challenged to recover its first love; (b) the term translated “service” appears only once in the Johannine literature (Rev. 2:19), and it “refers to an active life of care and help, to charitable service and ministry to others”9; (c) the church in Sardis was challenged to strengthen that which was about to die (3:2). Although the situation was different there, the text shows that church members carry responsibility for one another. This is certainly also true for situations of persecution. Church members need to assist each other in times of distress.
This leads to the intrapersonal reaction to persecution. How can followers of the Lamb react to persecution? Revelation shows:
● They turn to God in prayer (Rev. 6:10, 11; 8:4).
● They realize and acknowledge that God’s thoughts are not their thoughts and that God’s plan of salvation surpasses their understanding. While they rest and other martyrs will be added to their number (Rev. 6:11), time is provided for God’s people still in end-time Babylon to leave this counterfeit system (18:4).
● They hold on to what they have and do not allow their crowns to slip away (Rev. 2:25; 3:11). This attitude is also described as perseverance, patience, endurance—an important concept in Revelation.
● They accept suffering as a part and natural ingredient of discipleship (Rev. 14:4).
● They seek the good of their enemies by being faithful witnesses through their words and deeds, and serving as priests.
● They rely on the loving care of Jesus (Rev. 1:5, 6) and the many divine promises contained in Revelation.
10. Persecution and death are not considered to be defeat. In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ death is not understood as His defeat but as His glorification (John 7:39; 12:16, 23; 13:31) and exaltation (3:14; 8:28; 12:32–34). Jesus was successful in living out God’s plan for His life and, through apparent defeat, saved humanity. Victory is ascribed to Jesus in John 16:33. The Book of Revelation agrees with the Gospel of John that Jesus has conquered. Jesus’ suffering and death is depicted as His victory. The Lion from the root of David has gained the victory through lamblike suffering (Rev. 5:5, 6).
Revelation turns the common understanding upside down and makes the apparent winners losers and the apparent losers winners. This reversal of the natural human perspective alerts people to the fact that God evaluates situations differently and that they are indeed different from what they appear to be. Ironically, it was the satanic victory of killing Jesus that defeated Satan.
Persecution Is Not the End
The pervasiveness of the persecution theme in Revelation could be very discouraging, especially for Christians who are actually suffering persecution. The Apocalypse could be perceived as a gloomy book. But this is not true. Revelation is a very positive book dealing with Jesus’ love for and constant support of His disciples and presenting a wonderful hope (Rev. 1:5–8; 11:15). Persecution and death are definitely not the end.
1. God brings about judgment.
The first part of the Book of Revelation presents the problems the church of God faces. The second part of Revelation (chapters 15–22) shows the solutions. M. J. Gorman holds that about half of the book of Revelation addresses the issue of judgment.10 Judgment is one of the overarching themes of Revelation.
E. Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza suggests that “the final judgment and the eschatological salvation” is “the high point of the composition of the whole book” of Revelation.11 Though the visions of the first part of the book reach the climax of judgment and consummation again and again but do not spell them out in detail, judgment and consummation are fully developed in Revelation 19–22. The judgment scenes remind persecuted Christians that God is still in charge.
2. Christ is coming again.
Persecuted Christians live with the hope of a soon return of their Lord. The Second Coming is prominent in the Apocalypse, appearing for the first time in Revelation 1:7, the prologue of the book. This theme is described with various terms and images. It is found again in the messages to the seven churches, most likely also in the message to the Laodicean Church. It occurs in the sixth seal and in the seventh trumpet. It is depicted as the harvest of the earth in Revelation 14:16. The marriage supper of the Lamb and the description of the battle between the rider on the white horse with his army and the enemy forces of the two beasts, the kings of the earth, and the masses (19:19), which is the battle of Armageddon, refer to events related to Christ’s second coming. The epilogue of Revelation repeatedly stresses the Second Coming (22:7, 12, 20).
3. Resurrection and eternal life are the hope of Christ’s disciples.
Closely connected to the Second Coming is the resurrection of the righteous dead. The hope of the resurrection to eternal life may help faithful believers not to compromise with evil powers but to persevere. While the term resurrection is used twice in Revelation (20:5, 6), other typical resurrection vocabulary is absent. Nevertheless, the concept of resurrection is found in many places. Jesus was dead and is alive forever and ever (1:18; 2:8). He is the “firstborn of the dead” (1:5). Through Him all resurrections during history and at the end of time are made possible. And it is He who has the keys to death and Hades (Rev. 1:18). At His second coming, He will unlock the graves of the righteous and raise them to everlasting life. This is the “‘first resurrection’” (20:5).
Because Jesus lives forever (Rev. 1:18; 4:9) and God is the living God (4:9, 10; 7:2; 10:6; 15:7), those associated with Him will also live (20:4). In addition, eternal life is expressed with other imagery: participation in the tree of life in the future paradise (2:7; 22:2, 14, 19); the book of life (3:5; 13:8; 17:8; 20:12, 15; 21:27); the water of life (7:17; 21:6; 22:1, 17); the crown of life (2:10); and the breath of life (11:11). So, the language of persecution, death, and martyrdom is balanced by the language of eternal life. Death will be destroyed after the millennium (20:14), and will no longer be found on the new earth (21:4).
Thus, persecution is a major topic in Revelation, and the followers of the Lamb are not promised a life free from all challenges here and now. On the one hand, Revelation is not painting an unrealistic picture of the Christian life; on the other hand, it presents a beautiful image of what God is already doing for His children and what He has prepared for them in the future. In the end, Revelation is not so much a book about persecution, martyrdom, and death. It is a book about life through Christ and with Christ. Persecution is not the last word. God speaks the last word.
Ekkehardt Mueller, Th.D., D.Min., is an Associate Director of the Biblical Research Institute at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland.
NOTES AND REFERENCES