Big bad world, global organisations paving the way for a one-world government. Do we escape? How do we avoid the mark of the beast? We have probably all heard those lines, maybe we even subscribe to a variation of them. Over the centuries there have been many candidates for the post of antiChrist. Famously Napoleon was one as troops advanced across Europe to implement his vision for the increase of his empire and as he rapidly put one relative after another on the various thrones of Europe he quickly became prime candidate for the supposed end-time role. Maybe those who thought so simply got it wrong and we still need to watch… or maybe the whole approach is just simply wrong.
My real issue with that type of teaching is it tends to produce a fear of the world and a withdrawal from, rather than an engagement with, the world. Maybe there is a one-world government to come (although I don’t think that is taught in Scripture) but even if there is to be such a situation we surely know what response to make. It is the same one as ever: get stuck in. Jesus specifically prayed that the Father would not remove the disciples from the world and I see no reason to suggest that prayer has been changed over the centuries since it was prayed. If we were to withdraw how could there ever be a redemptive presence in the world? Withdrawal would only mean one thing, the situation would deteriorate. The self-fulfilling prophecy that the word is an evil place, therefore avoid it, is not prophetic but simply self-fulfilling. The two elements of petitioning heaven and positioning within society are key for the future, and a de-positioning will not enable any petitioning to be effective.
However, back to the one-world government theme. Whatever the future holds I consider it more helpful to look to the past, the time of the NT, and to see the faith response at that time, as the faith response then might well be instructive today – and tomorrow – for our response.
The one time that the world was all-but under a one-world government was the time of the Roman Empire, and the contrasts of the Roman message and the Gospel message are quite incredible. A quick summary should suffice, starting with the term ‘gospel’:
- A common use of the ‘gospel’ in the Imperial context was the good news of the ascension to the throne of a new emperor, who was proclaimed to be a son of the divine Caesar, being proclaimed as both saviour and lord.
In the Roman imperial world, the ‘gospel’ was the good news of Caesar’s having established peace and security for the world (Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire).
- The proclamation that Caesar is lord is in obvious direct contrast to Jesus is Lord.
- The Pax Romana established through military conquest contrasts the peace that Jesus established through the blood of the cross.
- The ekklesia already existed in cities, the assembly that ran the city. We can read in Acts 19:39 that the city clerk’s response to the riot was to tell them that, ‘If there is anything further you want to bring up, it must be settled in a legal assembly.’ The legal assembly is the word ekklesia. Each city had an ekklesia, but Paul came to establish an ekklesia in Jesus Christ. It is hard not to believe that this raises the provocative question of who will shape the city, Rome’s appointed ekklesia or the one not made up by the mighty and powerful but established from heaven?
- Then there is the Roman term for the Empire: basileia – the same term used for the kingdom (basileia) of God.
There are OT backgrounds to the various terms used in the NT but those take on new levels of significance when they clearly clashed with Rome’s preferred terminology. Paul and the apostolic proclamation did not change terminology in order to avoid any misunderstanding. He did not change so that people would clearly understood that the Gospel was non-political but spiritual. Indeed the refusal to change language, I suggest, was precisely because the Gospel was actually understood to be political. Not political in the sense of ‘if you follow Christ you will vote for a particular party’, but in the sense that ‘if you follow Christ your values will set you in conflict with all ideologies that call for your allegiance.’ As I heard someone once say: ‘Christianity will never make a good state religion!’
At a simple level those were the reasons why I would not take an oath when serving on a jury in court, nor swear allegiance to a flag or nation. The Lordship of Christ, then and now, absolutely relativises all other places where we serve, our ‘no’ having to mean ‘no’ so that our ‘yes’ to Jesus keeps us on course.
Life in the Empire was not easy for believers. As early as Nero Christians were blamed for the fire in Rome, and persecutions broke out from time to time. Believers lived in the squeezed place of not causing undue issues, seeking to follow practical advice such as: ‘If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all’ (Rom. 12:18)’ while realising that the Empire always rewards those who comply, they being the ones with the freedom to ‘buy and sell’. (Revelation makes total sense in the context of the world at the end of the 1st Century, and has to be manipulated to make the imagery carry relevance for the 21st Century.)
Caesar’s rule was classically imperial. A few shape the future, promising benefits to all who comply, but the benefits simply flowed from the margins back to the centre. This is the critique we read of in Revelation with 28 cargoes (7=fullness x 4=creation / world) being carried back to Rome, cargo that included human life (Rev. 18: 12,13). The contrast of that life-consuming rule to the ecology of Jesus with life flowing out to the margins, life through the Lamb slain.
We shared on these subjects in Brazil in the context of their very divisive election. Choosing which way to vote in any election is a difficult decision for a believer, and we neither encouraged a vote for one candidate nor another, but wanted to put the task of the church in context. One candidate might be considered better (more redemptive) than the other, but the task of the church is to position itself for the future and protect a shape where those who enter the political sphere will serve the people. A huge element (for me) is whatever humanises people is pointing toward the liberation of the Gospel – for that reason a blanket support of capitalism (and in particular neo-liberalism) nor extreme socialism can receive our endorsement: both of which feed from the lives of people, the fodder of the beast.
Rediscovering the socially transformative nature of the Gospel has to be a major ingredient involved in a recovery of the apostolic message.