As a pastor, one of the most common questions I receive is, "If God is all-powerful and all-good, why is there so much evil in the world? Why doesn't God simply defeat it and stop it? After all, didn't Jesus win the victory over Satan and sin on the cross?" Indeed, this is a query that has perplexed even the brightest Christian minds. Thus, I would never be so bold or arrogant as to purport that I could cohesively and comprehensively answer such a question, much less answer it in such a brief blog. I can, however, offer some practical guidance on how to live through and in such evil times, for practical and insightful guidance comes to us in our reading for today from Revelation 2.
As the book of Revelation gets underway in earnest, we are introduced to seven first century churches, scattered throughout Asia Minor. This was not an easy time for these churches, as is indicated in the verbiage used by Jesus as he writes letters to these churches: "You have... endured hardships" (verse 3). "I know your afflictions and your poverty" (verse 9). "I know where you live - where Satan has his throne. Yet... you did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city - where Satan lives" (verse 13). The reference to Antipas in verse 13 is especially interesting. According to the tenth century medieval Greek theologian Symeon Metaphrastes, this martyr Antipas, during the reign of Emperor Domitian, was thrown into a bronze kettle and roasted alive. All of these references paint an unambiguous picture of the evil these churches had to endure.
It is into the midst of such evil that Jesus, time and time again, proffers a call to these seven churches: "Overcome" (cf. verses 7, 11, 17, 26)! When we are faced with abominable iniquity, even though we may not fully understand the reasons why we must endure it, we must overcome it with the goodness and righteousness God. This is Jesus' commission. As Paul reminds us, "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:21).
Interestingly, the word for "overcome" in Greek is a present participle, indicating an ongoing and habitual action. That is, it is not that the Christians of these churches must overcome the evil which they face just once, it is that they are to continually and persistently overcome evil again and again. Jesus' call, then, is an ongoing challenge.
But there is a payoff. "To him who overcomes, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life in the paradise of God" (verse 7). "He who overcomes will not be hurt at all by the second death" (verse 11). "To him who overcomes, I will give some of the hidden manna" (verse 17). "To him who overcomes... I will give authority over the nations" (verse 26). Although the specific references to things like a "hidden manna" and a "second death" in these promises may strike us as somewhat cryptic, finally, these promises all refer to an immutable promise of biblical theology: that of God's salvation. Thus, Jesus' promise to these churches who overcome evil again and again, many times at great personal cost, is that that they will receive salvation from God who, on the Last Day, will overcome evil once and for all.
One of the incentives toward good work and behavior that my wife Melody often offers her first graders is that of a party. Sometimes it's a pizza party. Sometime's it's an ice cream party. Sometimes it's a movie. Her first graders don't know exactly what the prize will be, they only know that a glorious gift awaits them if they will only overcome their natural inclinations to be rowdy and inattentive. Indeed, in order to figure out what prize they will receive, Melody will post a "Wheel of Fortune" type puzzle on one of her bulletin boards and, every time her students do something commendable, she will uncover a letter until it finally spells out the precise nature of their coveted prize.
Oftentimes, as we trudge through our lives, the nature of God's final victory over evil on the Last Day can strike us as fuzzy and incomprehensible. Why doesn't God just end evil now? Why would God allow such hideous heinousness to plague even the most faithful of his people? Although I cannot fully answer those questions, I can assure you of this: The letters of God's salvation are slowly but surely being revealed as history marches to its close. God's party of salvation is on its way. But in the mean time, we are called to overcome. We are called to overcome the evil that grieves God's heart and ours. So today, when you see evil, respond with righteousness. And watch another letter of God's salvation be revealed.