December 8, 2019
Lord’s Day Worship
The sermon starts at 16:12 in the audio file.
Or, The Extraordinary Inheritance of Terrible Optimism
I continue to find myself more and more in the strange position of defending optimism. For much of my life I claimed to be a Realist, which is really a pessimist who likes to argue. Before that I was just an idiot. But for a growing number of years I have come to believe, especially about the Last Days, that things are going to become truly amazing as the world goes to hell in a handbasket. Light will shine so brightly that only increasing darkness will keep pace, until The Light of Life returns to judge the nations and defeat every enemy and dwell with His people and reign in His kingdom on earth.
What am I talking about, how did we get here, and what does it have to do with the book of Revelation? Good questions all, and let me try to answer them in reverse.
The last 10 sermons have been about the messages of Jesus to seven first century churches in Asia (Revelation 1:4, 2:1-3:22). Every one of those messages has ended with a promise to “the one conquering” or “the one overcoming.” I’ve not only been naming these sermons with a Just Conquer theme, I believe that Just Conquer colors all of Revelation. I’ve been saying “just” conquer for a few reasons. First, because I’m channeling Nike’s motto (“Just Do It”), because it’s a provocative understatement, and because this conquering is not your gladiator/emperor/general’s definition of conquering.
Think back with me about the seven things that needed to be conquered. Though two of the seven churches weren’t called to repent, they still had troubles and temptations to deal with.
As lampstands (Revelation 1:20), these churches would shine as lights in the world by not sinning and by not quitting. It was that basic. They would shine as lights by loving God, loving each other, holding fast the truth, being zealous for fellowshipping with Jesus, and persevering. This is just conquering.
To the one conquering Jesus gave promises. A different promise was given to the overcomers in each local church, but with the general call for anyone with an ear to hear what the Spirit says to the churches, I can’t think of a good reason not to understand that just conquerors get all the promises.
To the one conquering Jesus promises:
Near the end of Revelation God summarizes the just conquer promises.
And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son.” (Revelation 21:5-7)
The NASB translates, “he who overcomes will inherit these things.” This is an extraordinary inheritance.
What it is not is a promise that Christians, before Christ’s return, will conquer by voting in a Christian President, or that Christians will be the majority in a democratic nation, or that Jesus’ name will be acknowledged and even applauded in official ways, whether in a decade, or even in a few more millennia. Those kinds of effects would be ordinary, as in, what anyone might expect.
Those results are also optimistic in a straightforward, drawn directly from dot-A to dot-B sort of way. This is a transparent optimism, a positive confidence that sits on top of history and anyone can see it.
But Jesus’ messages to the churches do not define conquering as conquering a culture with Christianity, but rather Christians conquering their sin, including the sin of wanting to be accepted by the culture. Jesus’ messages to the churches call for conquering by repentance, conquering regardless of suffering, whether physically, financially, or by some other type of discrimination. Conquer your own temptations to indulgence, conquer your own temptations to lukewarm self-sufficiency, conquer your own lack of love.
The Amen does not promise us that we will win in any other way than the way He won (Revelation 3:21). And how did He win? This is the gospel, this is the cross. This is His loyalty that obeyed His Father, maintained fellowship with His Father, and served His people by loving them to the point of death. Jesus conquered by sacrifice. Because of that, He was granted to sit with His Father on the throne, and this is the path of our conquering as well.
In Revelation 21, note who are contrasted with the ones conquering.
But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexual immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death. (Revelation 21:8)
There appear to be two classes of non-conquerors, those who were known by their sin and those who were known for giving up: “the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable.” Conquering is a big deal because it requires faith and hope regardless of obvious wins.
The apostle Paul’s language about conquering fits with this sort of optimism. The final verses of Romans 8 are an extraordinary inheritance: certain to be conformed to the image of God’s Son, chosen to be glorified and everything necessary to get us there. God is for us, so, World, bring it. If the Father didn’t spare His own Son to save us, what won’t He give us? Who can condemn us now? And then some rhetorical questions:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.'” (Romans 8:35-36)
Wouldn’t you think that the great reversal of good news would come at this hinge? Isn’t this where one of those divine “but”s come in? “We are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered…but we win!” And, in a sense that is what Paul says.
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. (Romans 8:37)
The “No” answers if anything will separate us from the love of Christ. No. And “in all these things,” the blackballing, mocking, lacking, suffering, even dying things, we are more than conquerors. This is conquering through perseverance, and even that perseverance was bought for us when God gave His Son for us.
This is not transparent conquering, the “three steps to defeating your enemies in Jesus’ name,” the sort of obvious optimism about cultural changes that make life on earth better for Christians. But it is most certainly optimism. The Amen, the Alpha and Omega, the Spirit through Paul, call it conquering. That is not word play, it is the gospel principle, the “deeper magic” as Aslan put it, built in to how God made the world.
It is a terrible optimism. What I mean by that is an optimism that knows not only that the sun will rise while the wolves are still howling in the dark, but that getting eaten by the wolves, if that is God’s will, is a way of conquering. It is an optimism, a defining orientation based on expectations of what is sure to take place that is good, while pains and evil appears to take today. It is troubled, it is tried, but it is hopeful.
This stuff is crucial because you will live according to what you expect. There are a variety of ways to say it, and they all work. You will act according to what you really believe, regardless of what you say you believe, or think you want to believe. Your Eschatology, beliefs about the end things, will orient your Todayatology (or, more fancy, Semerology, from σήμερον, “today” so the study of today.)
Our group of eschatologiers has more pessimists than other ostensibly Christian groups. The premillennial are almost always less positive than the amillennial, though there are grooves of grumpiness that run deep in both of those camps. The premillennial are almost comically mocked as downers by the postmillennial, and I am telling you that you don’t have to believe them.
We can acknowledge that Dispies (those who think that Christ will return first to defeat His enemies and the rebels of the nations) have often, and mostly, and historically, been shrill, panicked, Chicken Little, bunker digging/stocking/reinforcing, unhappy, and generally not pleasant, let alone positive believers. There is the potential temptation for our group to get stuck on crucifixion Friday, when the Pharisees and the government and the police soldiers and the crowds gang up against the righteous.
But, it was GOOD Friday, because Sunday was inevitable. We might sympathize with the discouraged on Saturday, but we also know that if they had only believed what they had been told, by Jesus Himself, then they would have been able to anticipate the resurrection with a terrible optimism. If Monday-Peter, knowing what he knew on Monday after seeing the risen Christ, could have gone back to Thursday-Peter, might that have changed Peter’s ability to stay awake, pray, and confess his love for Jesus? It would still have been brutal, but wouldn’t he have been more bold?
It is not just possible, it’s characteristic, that someone knows something rationally but for whom that knowledge is still incongruous with his or her assumed/believed/defended identity. Of course there are believers who know that we have hope in Jesus, who aren’t hopeful people. Hope is alive for them in the dictionary on the shelf. They do not identify as hopeful, nor, as is what I really want to stress, do they identify as conquerors.
But you should. You must. If you believe, just conquer. If you can’t be separated from Christ, you are more than just a conqueror. That is true while you also expect that the wicked will increase in number and intensity, while world governments stock their arsenals to make war against the Messiah. Yet this is terrible optimism, a gospel optimism, a story of eschatology that guarantees that the empty tomb follows in a few days.
The other kind of being made to feel bad comes from some of our Christian brothers who think we have a theology of losing. Doug Wilson is one such person. I have learned a lot from him, as have many of you. But he ties so many things to postmillennialism (the belief that Christians will defeat global unbelief by making disciples and then Christ will return) that just aren’t necessary. They also are not congruous with the just conquer promises to the churches in Revelation 2-3. In a recent conversation he lamented that most Evangelicals have a culture of losing (here is the trailer to the entire discussion). We don’t expect to win, and he, by contrast, does expect to win. But his is still a gospel winning, a winning by repentance and sacrifice, and he believes that a future generation will have so many repenters and sacrificers that the world will be ready for Jesus to return. We also think that there will be more and more repenters and sacrificers and that the world will still need Jesus to return to conquer once and for all those who refuse to repent and sacrifice.
Does God expect the church to be potent and effective in a world of unbelief? Yes! And how does He expect us to have influence? Sometimes it is through terrible loss.
“Losing does not disturb us; it does not unsettle our faith. This is something the Church generally does really well. Speaking frankly, we frequently lose successfully far more often than we succeed successfully. Losing is our secret weapon.” (Wilson, Same Sex Mirage, 258-259)
We don’t think the church keeps losing and coming back again, we think the church will eventually “lose” and then Jesus comes back again. It’s not even that secret.
So, just conquer. And let your bias be toward not growing weary in well doing or giving up (Galatians 6:9). Be steadfast and always abounding in the work of the Lord knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). Where are the optimistic, Dispensational Premillennials? Look around, and come on in, the future is as bright as the lamp of the Lamb (Revelation 21:23).
Understatement: Not even Christmas can separate you from the love of God in Christ. Shall parties, or shopping, or cooking, or relatives, or fatigue, cause you to lose Christ’s love? We don’t even know how blessed we are to have only the problems that we have, and many of those blessings come to us from a culture that has been influenced by Christians acting like faithful Christians. Just conquer by repenting from your sin, and by staying in fellowship with Christ and with your people. Let this optimism shine no matter how busy or bad it gets.
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35–39, ESV)