Tempted to Despair? Don’t Be a Denethor

In the book of Revelation, aside from worship, the Church has two main functions in the world:
– Testify to the truth of the Gospel
– Be killed

(Usually the first is what leads to the second)

We can see this in a number of places (Rev 2:10, 13; 6:11; 11:4-13; 12:11; 13:7, 15). In the instance of Revelation 11, the people of God are symbolized by the two witnesses (Moses and Elijah) who work phenomenal signs and wonders, even having fire pour from their mouth to consume their adversaries (Rev 11:5). When the witnesses spectacular ministry concludes here is what we are told happens: 

And when they have finished their testimony, the beast that rises from the bottomless pit will make war on them and conquer them and kill them…and those who dwell on the earth will rejoice over them and make merry and exchange presents, because these two prophets had been a torment to those who dwell on the earth.” – Rev 11:7, 10

Despite the signs and wonders, at the conclusion of their ministry the world responds simply by slaughtering the church and celebrating like Christmas morning that the pesky Christians are no more. In a sense, the Church loses. But what happens next shocks the earth-dwellers:

But after the three and a half days a breath of life from God entered [the two witnesses], and they stood up on their feet, and great fear fell on those who saw them. Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here!” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, and their enemies watched them.” – Rev 11:11-12

After a brief interlude, the corpse of the Church revives and is summoned into heaven. And then God responds by devastating the world with a cataclysmic earthquake that demonstrates His divine wrath and final judgment (Rev 11:13). 

What does this mean for us?

J.R.R. Tolkien describes the story of history, the struggle against evil as “the long defeat.” In the Lord of the Rings, after Gandalf the wizard returns as “Gandalf the White” he cautions his companions:

I have spoken words of hope. But only of hope. Hope is not victory. War is upon us and all our friends…It fills me with great sorrow and great fear: for much shall be destroyed and all may be lost. I am Gandalf, Gandalf the White, but Black is mightier still,” (The Two Towers, “The White Rider”).

Though Gandalf is more powerful than before, “Gandalf the White” (formerly, Grey), he admits that the powers of evil still outmatch him. Gandalf presses this to his friends lest they foolishly miscalculate how fierce the battle may be. Similarly, Christians today should not be naive about just how powerful the world, sin, and the devil is.

My guess is that as the years roll by, Christians in the West are only going to feel increasingly like they are on the losing side of the culture, that all our labors don’t seem to do much to stem the tide of evil. The world may continue to devour itself, like a serpent eatings its own tail, and we may feel like we are simply fighting a long defeat.. And we may be. “Black is mightier still.” And yet we ought not despair.

Indulge me for one more LOTR reference: Denethor, the steward of Gondor, at the climactic siege of the third book has been able to see the terrifying size of the enemy’s forces due to his seeing stone, a crystal ball of sorts. What he doesn’t realize, however, is that the enemy, Sauron, has been twisting his mind through the orb, sowing seeds of hopelessness and despair. So, when Denethor sees that reinforcements fail to arrive, when he can no longer see how victory is possible, his answer is self-immolation. He attempts to set himself and his son ablaze in a moment of crazed despair.

What he doesn’t realize is that reinforcements are coming. Rohan is riding in from the North, Aragon sailing in from the South–the battle will be won. And even more than that, a small hobbit is bearing the ring of power to Mount Doom, about to destroy Sauron’s entire kingdom. Denethor’s seeing stone failed to show him such things, so suicide seems like a preferable option.

As Christians, we need to remember the truth that God will vindicate His people. We may follow the path of the saints in Revelation, testify to the truth–testify to it powerfully–only to be slain or thrown in jail or lose our jobs for it. This is normal. Satan is mighty, and our crucified Lord tells us that to follow Him is to follow His sufferings. But that does not mean that all hope is lost. As the world rejoices in the demise of the Church, we can be confident that there is more going on than our most sophisticated “seeing stones” fail to see: reinforcements are coming! Even if they arrive only to breathe life back into our dead bodies.

God will resurrect His people and administer final, vindictive justice. The enemies of God will beg mountains to fall on them to be hidden from the wrath of the Lamb (Rev 6:14) while God’s people stand (Rev 7:1ff). We should not be like Denethor, arrogantly claiming to know all ends, and be given over to bleak cynicism and resignation. The Church stands and fights the long defeat, certain that our reward and vindication is to come.

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. – Rev 2:10-11

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