I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom and the patient endurance that are in Jesus, was on the island called Patmos on account of the word of God and the testimony of Jesus. -Revelation 1:9
We’re living in the end times. We have been since Pentecost. The earliest Christians believed it, and what’s more, that is what the apostles teach us in Scripture. As early as Acts 2:17, just after Jesus had ascended to heaven and poured out his Spirit on His church, Peter declared that the “last days” prophecy from Joel 2 was being fulfilled in their midst: “In the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh.”
Paul writes in 2 Timothy 3:1, “Understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty.” The times of difficulty he was referring to were already happening for his readers. He was basically saying, “Don’t be surprised that these times are rough; these are the last days, after all!” Peter draws a similar conclusion: “Scoffers will come in the last days with scoffing, following their own sinful desires.” For Peter’s readers the scoffers weren’t something they were looking for in the future; they were there then.
James rebukes rich unbelievers, saying, “You have laid up treasure in the last days” (James 5:3). James believed that he and the church were already living in the last days. And most notably, the writer of Hebrews says, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” The first coming of Christ ushered in the final season of world history — these last days.
So it should come as no surprise to us when John writes to the seven churches in Asia, “I, John, your brother and partner in the tribulation and the kingdom…” John does not think of the tribulation as some future, seven-year-period of pure horror and hell on earth. He thinks hell is on earth then and there. He thinks it’s been here since the world came under the power of sin, death, and the devil.
The biblical understanding of the tribulation would lead us to believe that it is the age of Satan’s so-called reign on the earth. It’s the age that spans that period of time from Adam and Eve’s first sin until the last day at Christ’s return. But in these las days, that supposed reign of Satan is only what things appear to be, by what can be seen with natural eyes.
You see, John does not leave us without hope, all of us weary saints who trudge day after day through the misery of sin, death, and devil; but gives us the key to understanding our right and privilege as dual-citizenship holders of both heaven and earth. We are not only called, brought together, and untied in Christ to be brothers, sisters, partners in the tribulation under which we labor, but in the kingdom as well.
We are partners in the kingdom bringing life, light and forgiveness to a weary world, torn asunder by sin and seemingly ruled by the invisible tyrant of the ages, that ancient dragon, the devil. And that is exactly why we’re not all in heaven this very moment. That’s why we continue to labor in this world, on this side of history. There is an entire world of broken, hurting, sinful people right here, right now, just like us. But they do not yet know of this One who has for freedom called us by the Gospel, enlightened us with His gifts, and kept us in the true faith. That’s our job, to labor as partners in this tribulation for them, for the sake of giving them the goods, the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
But this task is not easy. And it comes at a terrible cost: death. Eventually, that’s where we all end up, six feet under, in the grave. And no one, in and of themselves, can endure this. Each and every one of us succumb. We eventually give in and give up the ghost. Many to whom John was writing in the First Century were firsthand eyewitnesses to this fact. So how can we speak of endurance? Death is so final. It get the last word, or so it would seem. Satan’s victory over us, sin’s victory over us, death’s victory over us seems so certain.
Jesus, writing through John to the members of the seven churches that are in Asia, will later say to the church in Smyrna, “I know your tribulation… Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. The one who conquers will not be hurt by the second death.” (Revelation 2:9a,10b-11) As if their very real partnership in the tribulation wasn’t enough to clue them in, they now knew for certain that death was coming for them on the heals of this very letter.
Immediately after, Jesus says to the church in Pergamum, “I know where you dwell, where Satan’s throne is. Yet you hold fast my name, and you did not deny my faith even in the days of Antipas my faithful witness, who was killed among you, where Satan dwells.” (Rev 2:13) They knew tribulation and death all too well. Their beloved brother, possibly their own pastor, was killed before their eyes, likely roasted alive in a bronze bull, when he would not give up the faith.
John writes of this paradoxical reality: that we are at the same time sinners and citizens of a sinful world, burdened down and laboring under the cruel masters of the tribulation, of sin, death, and the devil; and at the same time, we are joyful, free and forgiven saints and citizens of the kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Finally, then, because we are both of these things, and because we are sustained in and through Christ, we are more than conquerers; not for our own sake, and not because we are getting the doing done, but because Christ has already and is doing it. That is the only way that we can even begin to speak of patient endurance. It is in Christ, just as our only plea for forgiveness and life eternal is in Christ.
And so, in Christ alone, by His grace alone, through faith in His finished work alone, we endure. When we succumb, He has already done the enduring in His resurrection. When we’re drowning in failure, sin, and the ultimate penalty and sign of it—death—He has already killed and raised us in the waters of our Baptisms, certifying to us that we also will rise in a resurrection like His. When we starve, He has already fed us with true food and true drink, His very body and blood, of which He promises, “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” (John 6:54)
This is the kingdom of which John speaks, co-laboring with his contemporary faithful brothers and sisters in a burden of love and freedom for Christ’s sake to the nations: the kingdom of life, freedom and forgiveness in Christ’s name, brought to us weary, downtrodden sinners in Word and Sacrament, week after week, till our last day. But in Christ, we will never have a “last day.” In Christ, it’s only another beginning of the rest of eternity. One of these days we’ll just take a longer nap than usual.
Death will not keep you down, sin will have no hold on you, and despite what all of this looks like, Satan is bound, staked to the earth by the unbreakable promise of the Cross, and already beaten for all of eternity. His weapons are broken, His lies undone, and we have nothing to fear. Our enduring Savior has come and always will be near.
Until next time, the grace and peace of Christ be with you.
This is a weekly article series working through the book of Revelation. It is followed every Friday morning at 8 am (CST) by a live devotion dealing with the same subject matter and often additional material for your edification. Tune in Friday mornings on Christ Hold Fast's Facebook Page to learn more and ask questions.