FOLLOWERS OF THE LAMB: DISCIPLESHIP IN THE BOOK OF^REVELATION

 

Texts: Revelation 2-3; 14.1-5; 22

 

Discipleship cannot be carried on except within the context of the faithful community. The religious, social, political, economic conditions are inseparable from Christian existence in this world. Since Discipleship must express our life style in the here and now, we will approach the message of the Revelation, not as containing timeless doctrines of victory and sacrifice, but as expressing the foundation for hope throughout our radically changing circumstances.

 

The Revelation presents a "plausibility structure" to disciples who live in a world of despair and frustration, where "life was intolerable and death was unbearable." Under the pressure of radically changing life style, collapse of the Jewish State (70 A.D.) intensifying persecution (cf. Frend, Persecution) how and why were the early disciples to express their faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior? There are three possibilities of response: (1) Syncretism, i.e., arbitrary selection of items of belief and behavior from mutually exclusive systems of thought; (2) Apostasy, i.e. complete rejection of the Christian belief and behavior system; (3) Accommodation, i.e.,

pluralism confronts the ultimate claim of the Gospel "no other name". Acts 4.12.

 

Discipleship and Loss of Intentional Commitment: Legitimization and Plausibility Crisis

 

The Revelation was written in the context of first century paganism and Hellenistic Judaism. We must communicate its message in the context of secularistic, naturalistic, humanism of our era. One of the characteristics of this decade is pluralization, i.e., mutually exclusive, contradictory alternatives present themselves as solution to man's personal and social fragmentation.

 

Privatization, i.e. the loss of social structure and non-private meaning derives from lethal pluralism. Narcissism follows hard on the heels of intellectual and cultural privatism (Lasch's Culture of Narcissism). One of the devastating effects of the above forces is that "contemporary society is less legitimized than any previously existing social system ever. We know no moral order to give meaning to our social order." (Oxford Sociologist) Delegitimization results, i.e. man is without justifiable reasons for believing, belonging and behaving. Loss of legitimization causes a plausibility crisis (cf. Berger's Homeless Mind), which leaves only sociological and psychological basis for belief and behavior systems (cf. Martin Marty, A Nation of Behavers, and George Galiup, Search for American Faith).

 

Transmission of Discipleship would have ceased in the early centuries had the Church experienced the same loss of legitimization and plausibility as our present generation. Only when Disciples believe that the Faith is grounded in Truth and that it is relevant to the radically changing world of mega-trends will Discipleship be a living reality. Followers of The Lamb, whether in first or twentieth centuries, must possess "intentional commitment" to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior—not merely in order to personally survive mega-traumas set in motion by mega-trends, but to advance His kingdom of mega-tasks.

 

Discipleship, Literary Form and Message:

The literary form of The Revelation falls within the category called Visionary Literature. The book is described as prophecy and apocalypse. The work contains much literary realism, and not a little apocalyptic imagery. What could this possibly have to do with Discipleship? The work is saturated with challenges to believers to live out their faith in adverse circumstances in the Roman Empire. "When reading visionary literature, be prepared to use your imagination to picture a world that transcends earthly reality." (L. Ryken, How To Read The Bible As Literature, Zondervan, 1984, p. 167) The demands on Christian existence are often stretched to the breaking point throughout the work. Individual units within the book normally consist of usual narrative elements of (1) scene, (2) agent, (3) action, and (4) outcome. In order to relate the issues of Discipleship to this literary genre we must ask: (1) Where does the action occur? (2) Who are the actors? (3) What do they do? (4) What is the result? The book as a whole yields a literary unity and organization if we ask these narrative questions: (2) What overall plot conflicts govern the work? (2) Who are the main actors in the work? (3) What changes occur as the book unfolds? (4) What final resolution is reached in regard to the overriding conflicts?

 

To affirm that the Old Testament prophetic books and The Revelation use symbolism as their basic literary mode of expression is not to deny that they describe supernatural and historical events that actually happen. The ultimate issues is— how does John go about describing God's

sovereignty in history? Joseph's dream was not literally fulfilled. The dream interpreted by Daniel (Daniel 2.31-45) pictured historical realities, but it was not a literal description of those realities. These are examples of how scripture employs symbolism to express historical realities without entailing literal descriptions of those realities. The spiritual condition of the disciples at Laodicea is not expressed literally but rather symbolically (3.16,17; compare 3:4,12,20).

 

Revelation 12 unfolds a good index of the symbolic mode of the whole book (cf. Israel, Christ, Satan). The crucial question to ask, once the symbolic nature of the text is acknowledge, is—what historical event or theological reality or event in salvation history does this passage seem to be a symbolic version? (cf. symbolic nature of Priests' filthy garments in Zechariah 3.3-5; similarly, the sealing of believers in Revelation 7:2,3 is a symbolic picture of redemption.) The remainder of this study will consider three sections of The Revelation:

 

I. Discipleship and The Spiritual Condition of The Churches discussed in chps. 2-3 (see my Seer, Savior and The Saved, 1984).

 

II. Discipleship and Visionary Rhetoric in Revelation 14.1-5 (see especially Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza's, The Book of Revelation—Justice and Judgment. Fortress Press, 1985; and Donald Guthrie, "The Lamb in The Structure of The Book of Revelation" Vox Evangelica 12 (1980: 69-70). The literary context of Rev. 14.1-5 is the 144,000 around the Lamb on Mt. Zion are the anti-image of the beast and its followers which were depicted in Chp. 13 (note that Satan also has disciples).

 

There are three proclamations to the whole world: (2) First angel proclaims the Gospel of God's justice and judgment to all the world (cf. Fall of Babylon).  (2) Second angel underscores this message (14.8). (3) Third angel threatens those who worship the beast with eternal punishment (14.9-11). The entire section of proclamation concludes with two sayings addressed to disciples: (1) consistent resistance (hypomone); (2) blessing (makarismos) in 14.13. Reference is to those who "die in the Lord." The historical context of the author fits either Nero or Domitian, because of other considerations there is no reason to place any New Testament book beyond 70 A.D. Though the 144,000 are the anti image to the followers of the beast, there is little consensus as to their identity (cf. Jewish Christians, 'saved', ascetic males, holy remnant of Israel, the martyrs, Jehovah's Witnesses, etc.). Interpretational variance would be unmanageable if the hermeneutical horizons were world-wide rather than eschatologically oriented to the author's historical world. There is no exegetical grounds for any "timeless" interpretation about discipleship, victory or sacrifice. Such efforts have created despair which has caused many to relinquish a possible understanding of the Revelation (cf. Rev. 17-18 Rome and anti-Roman polemic compare Paul Minear and Jacques Ellul who affirm that Rome symbolizes "The City" as all human culture and civilization). The 'sense' of the rhetorical language (symbolic, poetic) within overall context of the book (cf. Canon) must retain its power of persuasion during the history of the Church and thus provide a 'plausibility structure' for discipleship until Jesus fulfills God's goal for creation (Rev. 21-22; Isaiah 60-66) at His return.

 

The symbolic universe of Revelation 'fits' the historical situation of its first century origin and also sustains 'Hope' for all true disciples until He comes. (cf. This makes possible an authoritative, inspired truth in apocalyptical/symbolic language). The meaning must not be capriciously imposed on the text. We must understand the text in the context of its social and rhetorical world before we translate it to ours or cross culturally (Matt. 28.19f).

 

The episodal images which appear in Rev. 14:1-5 interpret the action of disciples confronting Rome's power and cult and are distinguishable from the continuous narrative. The vision of the 144,000 with the divine name on their foreheads is clearly an antithetical vision to those of the dragon and the two beasts, while anticipating the vision of the victors who sing the song of Moses and the Lamb (15.2-4). It is interfaced with other heavenly-earthly eschatological visions of redemption and salvation (cf. chps 3.12; 5; 7; 17.14; 19.10; 20.4-6; new Jerusalem in 21.1-22.5; 22.3-5).

 

The function of the vision (14.1-5) is explained in the three proclamations (see above) and must be understood in the context of the explanatory remarks of Chp. 13 and the proclamation of 14.6-13. A serious grammatical difficulty remains—'were' or ďareŇ the 144,000 followers of the Lamb? (see D. Gufchrie, "The Lamb in The 'Structure of The Book of Revelation" Vox Evangelica 12 (1981):64-71); technically, are the terms parthenoi, agorazein, hypagein, aparche, or amonoi to be literally or symbolically understood in the context of the literary nature of the book? Do these terms describe all disciples or a special category? Note the anti image of the holiness of the bride—is that of Babylon - 21.9-11; 21.7; 22.15. The meaning of the vision and audition is given in symbolic language and must not be reduced to a 'one-to-one' meaning.

Throughout the narrative flow there is expressed opposition between the Worship of God and that of the beasts, the hypomene, that is, the "consistent resistance" or "staying power" of the disciples, who keep the word of God and the faith of Jesus, thus making a rhetorical transition from "blessed" (nakarisnos) to the judgment visions in 14.4-20.

 

Revelation 14.1-3 functions to highlight the election as well as the eschatalogical salvation of the 144,000, while the interpretation (vss 4-5) highlights their life-practice. Throughout the section we note an anti image to that of the beast and his followers as well as to the glory of Babylon. The entire section 14.1-5 underscores the decision that the audience faces: either to worship the anti-divine powers embodied by Rome and to become 'followers' (disciples) of the beast (IS.S-2!) or to worship God and to become "companions of the Lamb on Mount Zion. . . This ultimate decision jeopardizes either their lives and fortunes here and now or their future lives and share in the New Jerusalem, Mount Zion." (Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza).

The images of eschatological salvation and the heavenly world of God functions both as legitimization and plausibility structures in order to mobilize the readers' emotions as well as their minds, to attract, to sustain and persuade them to make the right decision here and now and to live accordingly in this life. Central to this positive function of these new images is the author's efforts to persuade the audience to decide for the worship of God and against that of the beast, which is shown as doomed to failure and destruction. The Book of Revelation not only seeks to convince Christian disciples that theirs is the right decision but also seeks to provoke them to stake their lives on it.

 

III. Discipleship in Revelation 20-22:

 

The Letter of Pliny to the emperor Trajan powerfully exposes the above as crucial to our understanding of Discipleship in the historical context of the Revelation.

 

In the meanwhile the method I have observed towards those who have been denounced to me as Christians is this: I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed. . . . Those who denied they were, or had ever been Christians;, who repeated after me an invocation to the Gods, and offered adoration with wine and frankincense to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for that purpose, together with those of the Gods, and who finally cursed Christ—none of which acts it is said, those who are really Christians can be forced into performing—these I thought it proper to discharge. Others who were named by that Informer, at first confessed themselves Christian and then denied it. . . . They all worshipped your statue and the images of the Gods and cursed Christ. (Letters X.96

Pliny the Younger, Letters (Loeb Classical Library; Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1969) 2: (01-2.)

 

(See also A. Y. Collins, "The Political Perspective of The Revelation to John" BJRL 96 (1966): 252ff.; P. Keresztes, "The Jews, The Christians, and Emperor Domitcian" YL 27(1973):1-28; B. J. Meyer and E. P. Sanders, editors. Jewish and Christian Self-Definition. 3 volumes. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1982; and E. M. Smallwood, "Domitian's Attitudes Towards the Jews and Judaism" Classical Philology 51 (1956):1-13.)

 

James D. Strauss