The Second Exodus
“To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. (Revelation 1:5b-6 NRSV).”
The book of Revelation contains a series of visions meant to comfort and encourage believers under the heavy hand of persecution. When the author, John of Patmos, introduces himself in Revelation 1:9, he says that he shares with the believers of the seven churches in “the persecution and the kingdom and the patient endurance.” Even saints and prophets are not immune to the suffering and hardship common to the life of faith. As 2 Timothy 3:12 states, “Indeed, all who want to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” In this context, John offers words of grace and peace “from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth (Rev 1:5a).” As he goes on to explain through his series of visions, this Jesus is in the process of leading his people on a Second Exodus out of death and into life eternal.
When John first introduces Jesus, the source of his revelation (Rev 1:1), he calls Jesus “the faithful witness (1:5).” The Greek word for “witness,” martus, conveys the fuller sense of the term. In the New Testament, the laying down of one’s life, even to the point of death, is the greatest testimony of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In John’s time, Christians “are being killed all day long” for their faith in Jesus (Rom 8:36). Yet, Christians do not face a fate any different from their Lord. Jesus, the faithful martyr, offers his life first for the salvation of the world and simply asks his disciples to follow in his way.
Hope in the Midst of Persecution
Not only is Jesus the faithful witness, but he is also “the ruler of the kings of the earth (Rev 1:5).” The one who willingly gave his life reigns now as sovereign lord of the universe. Even when the kings of this earth, the pharaohs and caesars, seem to oppose Jesus and his kingdom, they unwittingly fulfill the divine plan of salvation. This is the hope that John offers with his visions: God is control of all things and works toward good in all things (Rom 8:28).
To the believers in Smyrna who face affliction, poverty, and imprisonment, Jesus says, “Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life (Rev 2:10).” One might expect Jesus to promise to deliver his saints from wrongful imprisonment and martyrdom. Yet, no such promise is given. Rather, Jesus offers hope that death is not the end and the prospect of rewards in the life to come.
A little later in the book, the martyrs cry out to God for final justice, “Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long will it be before you judge and avenge our blood on the inhabitants of the earth? (Rev 6:10)” God’s response is curious. The martyrs are told to “rest a little longer, until the number would be complete” of those who must suffer and die for the faith (6:11). What comfort is there in the revelation that more are yet to be persecuted before the end comes? Only this, that God controls the ultimate direction of human history, not the rulers of this earth. While it may seem that the Caesar determines the number of the faithful martyred in the Colosseum, the truth is that God controls the number. History does not careen out of control toward oblivion. Instead, God’s providence guides all human history toward the new heavens and new earth (Rev 21-22). Believers can trust that God will finally bring his people to the good end that he has promised.
Exodus and Salvation
To further comfort first-century Christians, John draws a parallel between the Exodus from Egypt and the salvation of Christ (Rev 1:5b-6). In both stories, God delivers his people from bondage by the blood of a lamb and forms the people into a kingdom of priests (Ex 19:5-6). In the first Exodus, the people are saved by the blood of the passover lamb, sprinkled on the doorposts of their homes (Ex 12:21-24). After leaving slavery, they pass through the waters of the Sea on their way to forming a covenant with God at Mount Sinai, a covenant that makes them God’s witnesses to all nations. The book of Hebrews argues that the Exodus story and Mosaic covenant foreshadows the work of salvation God accomplished in Christ (Heb 9:11-14). In Christ, believers are freed from the oppression of sin and death. Then, they pass through the waters of baptism as they are made members of God’s covenant people, a people with a Great Commission to spread the gospel of Jesus to the whole world (Mt 28:18-20).
Yet, even though believers have already been rescued from the dominion of sin and death, they continue to suffer trials, persecution, and physical death. Has Christ’s work of salvation failed? What hope is there in Christ? Here, the pattern of the first Exodus offers believers in John’s time, and in all ages, a word of hope. After Mount Sinai, the people wandered through the wilderness before finally arriving at the Promised Land. John’s revelation is meant to give consolation to Christians living in the wilderness of this earth. As John’s visions show, God is providentially guiding his people toward the end of all things. For God, the “Alpha and Omega” (Rev 1:8), the end of the story is assured and the return of Christ is near. Yet, for believers there is the need to persevere through the wilderness of trials, temptations, and even death. Several times in the book, John offers these words, “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints (Rev 13:10b; 14:12).”
The visions of John in the book of Revelation make it clear that Christ is leading his people on a Second Exodus journey, and that believers currently live in the middle of that journey. Through Christ, believers are freed from the great enemy, Death (1 Cor 15:55). Yet, there is a paradox here. Believers still experience physical death on the way to Life. This makes it clear that the Second Exodus is not a liberation from physical death but a liberation from the Second Death that is to come (Rev 20:13-15). The Promised Land is, therefore, not a narrow strip of dirt in the Middle East, but a New Jerusalem “coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev 21:2) where all is made good and new. In that place, the troubles and trials of this life fade and become a distant memory as God and humanity are united in perfect love and harmony for all eternity.
(Featured image of Mt. Sinai from Thomas Depenbusch. Used under Flickr creative commons license.)