An Empire of Desire or Death?

The book of Revelation overwhelms its reader with God’s victory over sin and death, not merely in the future, but already, and even in John’s “past.” One is confronted with this truth at the beginning of the letter when one reads that the revelation that John received is not only from the Lord Jesus Christ but about the Lord Jesus Christ, who is “the Alpha and Omega,” “who is, who was and is to come, the Almighty” (1:8). If that is not enough to get the point across, then surely the saturation of the entire text in references, allusions and quotes from the Old Testament does. John is told of Jesus’ reign in his day by references to how it was expressed in the Old Covenant era and through its text. It is not merely that Jesus began to reign at his resurrection, but that Jesus reigned at the beginning of creation and he never relinquished it. Looks can be deceiving. Our looks deceive us.

When one actually reads the book of Revelation on its own terms one receives from it hope and the message of the Lord Jesus’ reign, because he is, was and is to come (1:8). He IS reigning; always has. The message of the entire Old and New Testament is that the Triune God reigns, not merely that he will one day reign. Among the glaring flaws of the Classic Dispensationalism that C. I. Scofield and John Nelson Darby pawned off on several generations of professing Christians in the late 19th century, and beyond, surely one of the most obvious is its failure to recognize who the God of the Bible is.

To actually receive the text of God’s word is to rightly receive its message of who God is. To receive that message one has not merely received right thoughts about God, although one is receiving them, but more accurately, one is receiving God himself. This means one’s very being is arrested and transformed—changed, so that one lives in the light and life of which the text speaks and transmits by the power of God’s Spirit. The message of Scripture is that God reigns, whether particular earthly people and powers recognize it or not. His kingdom shall have no end and it is, and it was present at creation. The world’s babel notwithstanding.

One of John’s primary points is that the “empire of desire” of his day as expressed in the Roman Empire in all its governmental and economic largesse with all its social entanglements was not what it appeared to be. It did not have the power it thought it had. Oh, it had a particular kind of power to be sure, but it was and is the power of death, not life. Jesus is life, not enticing and enslaving Babylon. Jesus is. Babylon is not.

The world’s babel, of course, is expressed in Adam and Eve’s sin, in Cain’s unacceptable worship and murder of his brother, in the decadence of the people of Noah’s day, and then clarified for us in Genesis 11. Babylon is the great prostitute, the mother of them all; she birthed them. Her description in Revelation 17 does not merely express the wealth and adornments of economic and political power but also the beauty and identification that marked the priests and kings of God’s Old Covenant people. Babylon is a deceiving, enticing and enslaving false religion. The economic and political power expressed by nation-states of the world along with the various corporate and cultural entities of which they are comprised is a false religion. No sacred/secular dichotomy here. Babylon is death, because she is idolatrous.

What Revelation identifies we are to do in relation to Babylon was also revealed by John in 1John 2:15, “Do not love the world or the things in the world.” By world John did not have reference to the physical creation but the ways of sinful humanity in rebellion against God. To think otherwise and affirm that John, or any writer of Scripture, taught a fundamental rejection of the physical creation in the name of serving the Creator Lord is to embrace a way of thinking that, while very popular in the Greek pagan thought of John’s day, is the rejection of biblical Christianity. Setting the physical material realm off against the spiritual realm and imagining that they are disconnected is the product of the human heart or soul, and has been expressed in a variety of ways throughout human history. The Greeks did not invent it, but they gave expression to it. So too does Classic Dispensationalism, as do all other interpretive approaches to Scripture that share its fundamental assertions. And, yes, Progressive Dispensationalism and various applications of the present “Two Kingdoms” approach to biblical interpretation are guilty in various ways of this. Regarding the latter, the issue is not whether there are two kingdoms—God’s kingdom and Man’s—but what actually marks their relation to each other.

Revelation teaches us that Babylon, Man’s kingdom, is not disconnected from God’s so that one can live in the latter and be untouched by the former. Neither is the reverse true. But neither does it mean that they are dissolved into each other. They are distinguished from each other in this current Age, but This Age has already been infiltrated by The Age To Come. It is why this world is passing away. This world marked by rebellion against God and, yes, thereby against God’s people has been, is being, and will be (Jesus was, is, and is to come) brought to its rightful end. Of course, it could not be otherwise, because Babylon is not merely the “empire of desire” but of death.

When one listens and watches what Babylon regards as news, i.e. history and thereby how it interprets itself, one might come away convinced of her impressive and inevitable power. Babylon is “fake news.” Babylon does not know its right hand from its left, does not realize it is butt naked despite telling us it is the emperor with new clothes, and while it has its own prophets, priests and kings peddling its religion and empire of desire, it leaves its proponents hung over and helpless unable to rightly interpret nearly anything. But it does not present itself this way, and its presentation of itself perhaps too easily influences our interpretation of it.

God’s people are always prone to either an over-realized eschatology (minimizing Babylon or thinking more highly than they should of what they are able to experience of God’s kingdom) or an under-realized one (maximizing Babylon, or thinking too lowly of what they are able to experience of God’s kingdom). The Marxists accounts of history that have dominated history departments within Babylon for about a century, and whose influence is not unfelt in allegedly Christian colleges and seminaries, has a vested interest in convincing people that Babylon, or “the empire of desire” is an insurmountable foe. When God’s people think this way they are marked by a defeatist, pessimistic cynicism that makes much of the empire of desire but fails to recognize that this empire of desire is not actually best identified this way. God’s word leads us to conclude that Babylon is more than just a vanity fair of desires marked by people identifying themselves according to their desires. No, the “world is passing away and its desires, but the one who does the Father’s will abides forever” (1John 2:17). Is John merely telling us what will be in the future? No. The verb tenses in that verse are not future, but present. The “empire of desire” is most accurately identified as the “empire of death,” not simply because one eventually perishes eternally in hell for living according to its desires, but because it and all the people who remain committed to it are presently dying. Satan has been defeated and thrown down not merely out of heaven but even now from the earth, because “the salvation and the power and the kingdom and the authority of the Christ have come” (Rev. 12:10).

Given the captivating, comprehensive and corrupting character of Babylon’s desires, that are in fact nothing less than the expression of the sinful human soul, Christians are always susceptible to the proverbial pendulum swing. Some make too little of Babylon. Some make too much.

We currently have examples of both. Some speak of “engaging the culture” and do so primarily on the basis of not merely borrowing the culture’s language for trying to communicate the gospel (a dangerous difficulty to say the least), but on the basis of its most fundamental commitments that emphasize the supremacy of human desires for self-identification, self-expression and self-empowerment. The gospel turns out to be how Jesus helps you get comfortable with who you think you are, what you want to do, and how you want to do it. This gets expressed in various ways to varying degree among individuals and congregations. It is not merely individual Christians identifying themselves according to their sin, or their particular niche group, but entire congregations (we are the congregation for the _____________ demographic). Church is “done” in a “new way” and anything popular within the broader culture is rather unthinkingly assimilated into the congregation without a serious questioning of whether the practice or object used actually expresses that which is antagonistic to the gospel. Some have never heard of Marshall McLuhan or Neil Postman, or come close to stumbling upon a smidgen of their insights.

The seemingly ubiquitous nature of this spiritual foolishness within particular quarters of the American evangelical world that dissolves the church with the culture can perhaps lead some in the church to fail to give God his due regard. The Lord Jesus is building his church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against her. Even in the midst of Babylon, the Lord Jesus reigns. The Lord Jesus reigns in his church not disconnected from Babylon but in distinction from her while right in her midst. The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof and those who dwell in it (Ps. 24:1). Precisely because Babylon presents itself as life when she is death, the one who is life actually reigns over her. He speaks powerfully to her and those enticed by her, points out her foolishness and calls those captured by it to repent of it. This word does not merely bring God’s covenant blessing but administrates his covenant curse (Isaiah 6:9-12; Mt. 13:10-17). The Lord Jesus’ kingdom is the leaven that will fill the whole earth (Mt. 13:33). One day the knowledge of God will cover the earth like the waters cover the sea (Isaiah 11:9; Habakkuk 2:14). There is a progress to redemption. Those captured by Babylon cannot see or hear it. Their blindness and deafness does not nullify Jesus’ reign.

While we certainly should reject the spiritually foolish, intellectually shallow, and unbridled sincerity of those who reject the power of God’s word preached, the administration of the Lord’s Supper and Baptism, and prayer in favor of Babylon’s smoke and mirrors, we also need to be careful that in the process we do not fail to recognize and live in the reality of God’s Spirit blowing the smoke away and the One who is the image of the invisible God manifesting himself as Lord, even now, over the whole earth.

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