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Jesus’ leadership is demonstrated in the incarnation through his integration of faith and commitment. Jesus warns “beware the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matt. 16:6, 11-12) whose influence, through Israel’s Temple and Torah, had become like pagan allegiance to principalities and powers (cf. Gal. 4:8-11; Rom. 5:20, 7:7-25). John’s audience, living within the Roman Empire, had witnessed idolatry taken to a new level, the deifying of the pagan state. Nero was the “symbol of political power that abuses its God-given authority.” Nero’s approach to leadership was the antithesis of Jesus, which is why he is characterized as the antichrist. Sadly, missionary endeavors at times have practiced variations of the conquest ethic of the Roman Empire, coercing conversion in the Name of Jesus!
What can we learn from Jesus’ leadership example and warnings to the churches in Revelation? While Paul encouraged churches to live in accord with civil law, John warns against becoming too comfortable. John’s churches appear therefore to be negotiating the margins of a corrupt society, seeking to avoid becoming “victims of social ostracism.” Christians today may also be ridiculed for their exclusivism and seduced into compromising their loyalty to Jesus. John’s churches may have been threatened with punishment for failure to participate in pagan idolatry, including sacrifice to Roman gods. The Nicolaitans, a religious sect with “Gnostic” tendencies in Ephesus and Pergamum, were denounced and “hated” for participating in syncretistic practices (cf. Rev. 2:6; 3:14-16; 3:20-24). How then should Christians follow Jesus’ lead in today’s society? Are Christians therefore to withdraw from trade guilds, dinner parties, legal transactions, political rallies, sporting events, and theatrical presentations? Was it openness to the surrounding Greco-Roman culture that Jesus rejected, or was it something else?
Participation, or lack of it, has profound impact on the character of a church’s witness. Perhaps Christians should witness to the servant-leadership of Jesus by demonstrating how it is possible to move with confidence through everyday life? Truth is “revealed supremely” in Jesus who was “obedient to the point of death” without considering his “equality with God something to be exploited” (Phil. 2:8, 6). John’s Revelation of Jesus has made plain the character of God who is willing to become a servant and die as a criminal in self-giving love.
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Revelation is cast with vivid imagery, influenced by the backdrop of “volatile times” in Jerusalem and Rome. By illustrating a cosmic struggle with satirical exaggeration, Revelation employs symbols intended for his first century audience, not clearly understood by subsequent generations. To illustrate, the Roman instrument of execution would not be found in the “seven churches;” the symbol of the cross is not found anywhere in the text. The “beast” (Rev. 17:7) and the “antichrist” (1 John 4:3) were understood to be Rome and Nero and Peter had already designated Rome as “Babylon” (1 Pet. 5:13). Demystifying the symbols allows the reader to again focus on the central figure, the “image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), the One “who was and is and is to come” (Rev. 4:8).
This powerful portrayal of the incarnation is coupled to John’s warning to the churches of the dangers of false “Gnostic” teachings, which inevitably lead to a lack of concern for Christ’s mission to all humanity. John reveals that the One who “emptied himself…being born in human likeness” (Phil. 2:7) is eternally incarnate, “every eye will see him” (Rev. 1:7). However, he is not merely physical; he does not only “seem” to have suffered physically. Likewise, he is not only spiritual. He is personal, a living soul who “became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). The revelation of Jesus’ incarnation confounds false teachings of dualism; he is God and human enthroned.
Today congregations are caught in a similar conflict between two extremes: One is the “secular” materialist view, which denies the miraculous, including the resurrection; and the other is the “super-spiritual” view, which tends to minimize Jesus’ incarnation and an ethical commitment to the surrounding world. The book of Revelation is about the “time” of “wrath” and “reward” for “all who fear [his] name, both small and great,” and included in that time of wrath is the destruction of “those who destroy the earth” (Rev. 11:18). The severe warning to John’s audience and churches today is this: distorting the truth of the incarnation will separate followers from Christ, from the reality of this life, and from responsibility for all of life. Failing to teach the incarnation leads to idolatry and immorality.
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