Saturday, May 9, 2009

Contra Babylon

The Scripture in the Office of Readings for today is from Revelation 18 — God’s judgment on Babylon. John’s Apocalypse is a breeding ground for speculation and sensationalism. Literalists focus on what is going on in Iraq right now. A bit of biblical study makes it clear that John used “Babylon” as a code name for Rome. This is all some people have needed to look for some direct renewal of the Roman Empire to be part of biblical prophecy, even accusing the Roman Catholic Church as the context for the rise of an ultimate anti-Christ.

What was John saying to the Church when he wrote this? What message has Jesus intended for His Church throughout the years the book of Revelation has been part of the Canon? These are the questions we should ask when trying to discern the “meaning” of Revelation.

Augustine gave a wonderful insight into this particular issue with his contrast of the City of God and the City of Man. Revelation 18 is about God's final judgment on the City of Man. The City of Man is symbolized by Babylon. There is an historical reason for that which is significant, but the spiritual reason for it is even more significant. Babylon was part of a fabulous culture. It was out of Babylon that much of sophisticated pagan religion developed. Babylon is almost synonymous with astrology. Babylon was Nebuchadnezzar saying, "I am the greatest man that ever lived; I am accountable to no one." Nebuchadnezzar is not the only person who has ever felt that way, but he had more wealth and power than most. He is typical of the natural inclination of the human heart, apart from the grace of God. It's an attitude which says, "the whole world rotates around me."

In John's day the City of Man was epitomized by Rome. For you and me it can be Washington, D.C. or New York. If we are foolish enough it can be our own home towns. The City of Man is any political or social organization of humankind that says in essence, "We control our own destiny. We can devise our own happiness. Who needs God?" John's concern in this — and the issue which is important for us — is the question: which "city" has our allegiance? Is it the City of Man or is it the City of God? Is it beauty as it is defined by man with his temporal nearsightedness and sensuality, or is it values that are true because we know who God is? It is helpful to remember the panoramic way the Bible shows this rebellion of the City of Man against God. What happened at Babel? God stopped it. What happened to Sodom and Gomorrah? They were wiped off the face of the earth. What happened to Babylon? As Babylon had spread terror and oppression over surrounding nations, so it received the same; Cyrus came from Persia and destroyed Babylon. In John's day, Rome was the big oligarchy — dominant and proud. But it was not forever; Rome went the way of all great human autonomy. Each of those are stories of God's justice in their own right, but on the other hand they are little parentheses that show us pictures of the bigger truth. In Revelation 18 it is not just one city. It is not just Babylon. It is not going to be only Rome. It is the whole earth — every human system that has said we will build our own place in the sun.

God's people often look around in a world gone mad as it spurns God and asks, "Where is the justice of God? Why hasn't He done something?" He has done something. He took care of Babylon. He took care of Rome. The only reason that He has not taken care of the whole situation yet is because with God, along with the strong arm of justice, there is also the strong arm of mercy. Yes, God moves in judgments. But until everything is cut off, there is the two-headed side of judgment. Here is the "coin" of judgment: Which side do you choose? Is it going to be the judgment of the wrath of God, or is it going to be the judgment that leads to repentance and mercy? That choice is presented in the book of Revelation all the way up to the end. God keeps saying, "I gave you time to repent..." But the spirit of the world will not repent.

As judgment comes on the city — on the whole world system — notice what happens. The kings of the earth (v9), the merchants (v11), and the shipmasters (v17) all start crying. John uses these three classes of people — the kings, the merchants and the shipmasters — to represent the bankruptcy of an arrogant existence which has always believed it was secure because it was living in a world of its own making. As long as the war machine and the purse strings are there, can't the world do anything it wants to do? There are people in the world who think so. That is the attitude of the City of Man. It prevails for a while, and it looks as though it is true until you see where it ends up. That is one of the messages Jesus gives to the churches in this Book of Revelation.

As God's judgment falls on all of this, the kings, the merchants and the shipmen begin to weep and wail and mourn (vs9,11,15,19). They look at what is going on, and their hearts are broken. But their hearts are not broken out of sympathy. They are not crying and weeping and mourning because of the city. They are not crying over the disaster that has fallen upon the people who have believed the glamorous lie. They aren't crying for their neighbors. They are weeping because they are being deprived of their means of financial gain and their pleasures.

There is an ultimate contrast that helps us see what is at stake. Here are these men weeping over a city because through the judgment of God their opportunity for wealth by oppression is being taken away from them, and they are crushed. The contrast to that is in Luke's Gospel. There, another man is weeping over a city. This man, though, is the Lord we say we follow. He cries, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often have I longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!" (Lu 13:34).

The heart of the Son of God is broken for people who are perishing. In order to save them, He Himself went up on a hill outside of that city and gave His life. That is one way to understand what John is saying about “Babylon.” The writer to the Hebrews says people of faith desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city (11:16). We have a choice to make about value systems — to embrace either the City of God or the City of Man  and the message in Revelation 18 is "not Babylon."

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