I’ve argued before that when we read Revelation it is applicable to our present situation, not because we attempt to read a detailed chronology of the last days with timings but because we best understand Revelation as offering God’s explanation of the whole of history from the perspective of the end. This means that we can understand events that are happening now through the lens of Revelation without insisting that means these are the very last days. Indeed, it is possible to understand any part of history in light of the book.
I thought it might be helpful to say a little bit more about what I mean by this by looking at the current situation as a case study. Let’s do so with the help of x examples from Revelation.
Our first example is Revelation 9 where a great army amasses at the Euphrates River ready to cross and invade (9:14-15). It makes sense in terms of both historical and literary context for the armies to be portrayed as gathering at the Euphrates. Historically, invasion against Israel would have come across the Euphrates, so a gathering there is associated with a seismic threat. This also would have marked the boundaries of the Roman Empire and so a threat to the civilised world of John’s day might be seen to come across the great river. However, in literary terms, remember that the enemies of God’s people are identified in Revelation with the city of Babylon which was also the other side of the Euphrates.
So, in his vision, John sees a threat unleased from across the Euphrates, that’s where the danger had historically come from and symbolically when Rome as figurative Babylon the threat would come from there in AD70 when Jerusalem fell and more literally, the church would live through future threats from outside of the Empire and across the Euphrates.
Different people at different times can identify with this sense of threat when it has felt like the world as they know it is about to fall to violent hordes from the outside. Note, the colourful language of scorpion like creatures is intended to draw on the art and sculpture of the ancient near east to give full sense to the horror and dread that such enemies will bring often with more powerful and more fearsome weaponry than known before.
So, it is possible for us to think in terms of the way that the Russian mobilisation and invasion of Ukraine plays into our fears, there is a real military threat to our way of life. The threat has come true in Ukraine but in the rest of Europe we are still in its shadow. The outside enemy boasts in a fearsome military with weapons that they call “The Father of All Bombs” and “Satan”.
It is important to remember when we see such a threat that although it may seem that powerful men of questionable mental stability are in control and to be feared that God remains sovereign. It is only as and when God permits that such forces are released into action (9:14).
In Revelation 6:6 we read:
“6 And I heard what seemed to be a voice in the midst of the four living creatures, saying, “A quart[a] of wheat for a denarius,[b] and three quarts of barley for a denarius, and do not harm the oil and wine!””
I think we can see in this example how God’s Word accurately presents the consequences of a crisis whether through human military action of natural disaster. We’ve seen in the past how a mixture of environmental factors combined with human corruption turned the former bread basket countries of Africa into famine ravaged desert. Older readers will remember how conflict in the Middle East pushed up oil prices feeding into inflation in the 1970s. Today’s conflict brings a double whammy. First of all, economic sanctions mean that oil and gas supplies are being turned off from Russia leading to increased fuel costs. At the same time, Ukraine is a key supplier of basic food commodities and so that’s pushing up those prices too. Prices have already been affected by supply chain problems caused by the Global pandemic. War, famine and plague often combine.
Now, all of these economic challenges add to the temptation to conform to this world’s way of doing things -to receive its seal by pursuing greed out of self-preservation, to turn our backs on generosity and to forget the value of integrity. Christians may find that their commitment to integrity and compassion exclude them from a dog eat dog cut through market. Yet, when we know that we have received Christ’s seal, we can trust him to hold us safe in his hand through trials. We also learn that by living his way enables that compassion to provide for the care of his family in very practical ways.
Our third example is also found in chapter 6
9 When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne. 10 They cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” 11 Then they were each given a white robe and told to rest a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and their brothers[c] should be complete, who were to be killed as they themselves had been.
Here we see how God’s people suffer in the midst of crisis. We see generally that our commitment to Christ and his ways leads to us being seen as a threat, treated with suspicion and outright hostility. This has been generally true for the church in the West for many years. However, there is also particular suffering for believers in Ukraine because they have often chosen to stay in the danger zones. Furthermore, we can see how a compromised church such as the Russian Orthodox Church which has wedded itself to nationalism and Putin can bring about anti-Christ religious based persecution too. Believers in Russia also face oppression both from the State and it’s official church because they dare speak for truth.
In all these things it is good to remember that despite the dark days that are upon us that God is still on his throne. It is Jesus, the Lion and the Lamb who is worthy and able to open the seals that bind the scroll of prophecy. In other words, he remains sovereign both so that nothing can happen to his people without his say so – and remember, all that he wills is for the good of those who love him. Furthermore, he controls revelation so that it is only through Christ’s eyes and the perspective of the Gospel that we can and should seek to make sense of what is happening.