CHURCH HISTORY: Telling a Story

We left our last conversation (and finished our study of the Scriptures) with this nagging question: What happened?

Now that we are done with our study of the God-breathed Text, we are entering a very sticky and dangerous realm of my own personal thoughts and opinions. While my thoughts and opinions have certainly been at work in the previous discussion, I have taken solace in the fact that we were working on a discussion centered around the life-giving biblical narrative. But this question is incredibly important, and as a Bible teacher who works with college students, I’m deeply convicted that if we don’t wrestle with these questions, we have done a great disservice to our study of the Text.

One of the things we talk about at Impact Campus Ministries is what we call “Message, Mode, and Milieu” — an idea introduced to us through the dissertation work and leadership of my personal friend, mentor, and former ICM president, Bill Westfall. When we speak of Message, the idea we are trying to communicate is that we need to have an understanding of “the whole story of God and His invitation to join” that story. There is no way we can adequately address this invitation if we don’t have an understanding of what happened in between the world of the Bible and the world you and I traverse today.

Because of this, I would like to wrap up our study by engaging that now. It is important to know a few things.

1) I am not a historian or an expert in the field of church history. Have I studied church history considerably? Yes. Am I an expert? Not at all. I am indebted to the work of real experts, some of whom I’ve been able to study with personally, and some I have only read from a distance. Please don’t quote me as a source in this regard. I am simply trying to take some of the things I have learned and think critically with all of you. Nothing more; nothing less.

2) Every historian, whether they are an expert or not, tells a story. There simply is no such thing as an unbiased rendering of history. Each one of us sees history through the lens of our own culture, language, experience, opinion, and conviction. I want you to know up front that I will be taking the parts of history I believe tell the story in the most useful manner for our culture in this place and in this time. It is completely intentional and biased. But please, do not ever believe anyone who doesn’t affirm that. All renderings of history have a story to tell, and all historians are storytellers. We should not run from that, but embrace it. And we should allow it to challenge us to think critically about our past(s).

3) My intent with this last portion of our study is not “the history of the church.” I will not even begin to deal adequately with any portion of church history in a comprehensive way. I will not be doing a study on the reformers, or the desert fathers. I simply want to take a broad look at where we’ve been and how our Christian world has been shaped. This means I will be overgeneralizing at times. I will try my best not to do this in a misleading or disingenuous way, but I want to stay within the scope of my intent here.

In this regard, there are many, many great sources for church history. I would recommend books like Constantine’s Sword and Bruce Shelley’s Church History in Plain Language. These recommendations do not mean I agree in full with these works or their many nuances, but they are a great way to get started.

Now, as I pointed out, the early Christians seemed to believe the return of Christ was imminent. Were they wrong? I don’t believe they were.

As I said earlier, I believe Jesus taught us about a proper three-part understanding of the coming of the Age to Come. I do not believe there is a fixed date for which Jesus’s return is set. On the contrary, I believe God is inviting us to partner with Him in restoring a broken world. At some point, as this “redemptive arc of history” is bent closer and closer to the intent of God, God will snap the last few pieces into place — maybe just as the apocalyptic prophets paint the picture, or maybe differently.

This understanding runs congruent with the Jewish understanding Peter seems to promote in 2 Peter 3.
You ought to live holy and godly lives as you look forward to the day of God and speed its coming. That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.
Apparently the “day of God” is not fixed, but stands in relation to us. Our obedience somehow speeds up its coming. And just as we saw in the end of our study of the New Testament, this commitment and radical obedience by the early believers was working. I don’t believe they were wrong to think the coming of Christ and the new heaven and new earth — prophesied by Isaiah, re-announced by Peter, Paul, and John — were speedily approaching.

But then something happened…

We seemed to lose the plot. I want to look at what that something might have been. Join me as we begin to walk through the last 2000 years.


REVELATION: The End is a New Beginning

John now works his apocalyptic vision toward its ultimate closing.
Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb down the middle of the great street of the city. On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. No longer will there be any curse. The throne of God and of the Lamb will be in the city, and his servants will serve him. They will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. There will be no more night. They will not need the light of a lamp or the light of the sun, for the Lord God will give them light. And they will reign for ever and ever.
John continues to draw from the imagery of Ezekiel (in this case, chapter 47), using the image of an angel showing the prophets the apocalyptic conclusion to his vision. The allusions continue, as what John sees is very similar to what Ezekiel saw. Ezekiel also saw a river and trees that bore fruit for the healing of the nations. Allusions to the Psalms and to Jeremiah abound, as well. It seems as though everything God’s people longed for is still — according to John — something to long for, and still in process.

It’s coming, John says.

I think it’s also worth noting here that John is deliberately bringing us full circle back to the beginning of the story of God. There are plenty of direct and indirect allusions to the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Life. Some have suggested John is mirroring the creation imagery in his vision. This would make sense, as we’ve seen in the rest of Johannine literature that John loves to work around with the Creation story motif. Could it be John is bringing us back to where it all began? Remember, in the beginning, Genesis said God separated light from darkness — but the “source” of that light (the sun) wasn’t created until day four. Could John be alluding to these beginnings by suggesting that there is light, but no sun? It seems likely.
The angel said to me, “These words are trustworthy and true. The Lord, the God who inspires the prophets, sent his angel to show his servants the things that must soon take place.”
“Look, I am coming soon! Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy written in this scroll.”
I, John, am the one who heard and saw these things. And when I had heard and seen them, I fell down to worship at the feet of the angel who had been showing them to me. But he said to me, “Don’t do that! I am a fellow servant with you and with your fellow prophets and with all who keep the words of this scroll. Worship God!”
Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this scroll, because the time is near. Let the one who does wrong continue to do wrong; let the vile person continue to be vile; let the one who does right continue to do right; and let the holy person continue to be holy.”
“Look, I am coming soon! My reward is with me, and I will give to each person according to what they have done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”
John (in the vision) is overwhelmed by the things he sees. He falls to worship, but the angel calls to him to make sure his worship remains pure. Is this a call for the readers of this vision, as well? Possibly. The language used by the angel here mirrors that of other visions, in particular at least three different sections in Daniel (chapters 8, 9, and 12). And there may be hints at the closing of Isaiah (chapter 65, and others might even suggest chapter 40).
John’s message continues: It’s all coming true. It’s all coming to pass. You must overcome! You must persevere.
“Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.
“I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star.”
The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let the one who hears say, “Come!” Let the one who is thirsty come; and let the one who wishes take the free gift of the water of life.
They must hang in there. John gives them words from Jesus, a testimony for the churches. They must not give in to uncertainly or despair, for the reward of staying true to their convictions will not only be the opportunity to drink freely of the water of life, but to see the culmination of thousands of years of faithfulness on behalf of their ancestors. God’s great redemption project is finding its true and complete fulfillment! But not if they give up.
I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this scroll: If anyone adds anything to them, God will add to that person the plagues described in this scroll. And if anyone takes words away from this scroll of prophecy, God will take away from that person any share in the tree of life and in the Holy City, which are described in this scroll.
While many get worked up about these verses (which are important, no doubt), what is often missed is the fact that these words are taken (surprise!) from earlier writings. Deuteronomy had similar prohibitions. Even the wisdom of the Proverbs used similar words to talk about the record.
He who testifies to these things says, “Yes, I am coming soon.”
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.
And with that prayer of anticipation, John closes his apocalyptic vision.

And we close our study of the Scriptures. But we simply can’t end the conversation here, for this conversation raises historical questions that nag us as twenty-first-century readers. As the Bible ends, the persecuted people of God are standing strong against the empire of Rome. They are watching Rome crumble in the face of a subversive movement and a commitment to peace, love, and compassion. Multiple times throughout the New Testament, we heard the writers exclaim or allude to the fact that they believed the world would see the return of Jesus within even a generation or two.

Were they wrong? How could we have gone through such trying times and watch the fall of the most powerful empire in the world and not see the end of this story? How did we get to where we are today?

In short, what happened?



And now Revelation begins to wind to a close as we see heaven and earth returning to God’s original intent. Indeed, John’s message of encouragement is finding its ultimate fulfillment in the affirming close of John’s vision. John speaks in Revelation 21 of a moving reunion of heaven and earth, a reunion the whole earth has been waiting for (see Romans 8) since soil and spirit had been ripped apart near the beginning of the narrative.
Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
One cannot read this climactic resolution to John’s visions and not think of the last half of Isaiah 65. But in this, we also see John bringing together all sorts of other mini-narratives, not the least of these being the marital imagery we spoke of all the way back in the Exodus. The vision speaks of God wiping away tears, something that was yearned for by Jeremiah (see chapters 25 and 35). Everything the prophets spoke of and yearned for is finally experienced here. It’s a tragedy that we focus on and argue about so many of the apocalyptic details that we miss the driving image of worship and hope that lies at the end of John’s vision.
He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To the thirsty I will give water without cost from the spring of the water of life.Those who are victorious will inherit all this, and I will be their God and they will be my children. But the cowardly, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars—they will be consigned to the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”
One of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God. It shone with the glory of God, and its brilliance was like that of a very precious jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and with twelve angels at the gates. On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel. There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west. The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb.
Still more prophets find their fulfillment in this vision of John. Ezekiel’s vision of the new temple (an apocalyptic vision), as well as many statements made by Zechariah, drive the images John describes here. One couldn’t think of drinking freely of the water of life without remembering Isaiah’s words in chapter 55. And as far as God dealing with the immoral, it is more than a simple pronouncement of judgment on unbelievers. The preceding statement is a reference to 2 Samuel 7, but not just any reference: God was speaking to David about building His temple, something John is discussing in this very passage.

The angel who talked with me had a measuring rod of gold to measure the city, its gates and its walls. The city was laid out like a square, as long as it was wide. He measured the city with the rod and found it to be 12,000 stadia in length, and as wide and high as it is long. The angel measured the wall using human measurement, and it was 144 cubits thick. The wall was made of jasper, and the city of pure gold, as pure as glass. The foundations of the city walls were decorated with every kind of precious stone. The first foundation was jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth ruby, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth turquoise, the eleventh jacinth, and the twelfth amethyst. The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate made of a single pearl. The great street of the city was of gold, as pure as transparent glass.
Following in the custom of the apocalyptic prophets who had gone before him, John has the Temple measured. But this time, John doesn’t miss the opportunity to make a major statement about this new Kingdom as seen in Jesus. This time, the Temple and the city is even bigger than it was in Ezekiel. There is enough of everything to go around for everybody who needs to be there. The numbers chosen scream out “one united people of God!” 12,000 stadia square this city is. Not only is this length an obvious multiple of 12 (the number for God’s people, as in the twelve tribes), but it’s just under 1400 miles long. John’s point is that Ezekiel didn’t think big enough. God’s new city is going to cover the entire civilized world as they knew it. The walls are over 200 feet thick, but again, what’s striking is that John uses multiples of 12 to get his message across. This is about people. There is enough heaven to go around for everyone!
I did not see a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple. The city does not need the sun or the moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it. On no day will its gates ever be shut, for there will be no night there. The glory and honor of the nations will be brought into it. Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life.
Yes, everything is as it ought to be. John finishes with references to the closings of other apocalyptic visions. Images of nations streaming to the city of God and the gates never being shut bring us back to the prophecies of Zechariah and Isaiah.

John’s message continues to be one of hope. God will get the last word. Things will end up as they’ve been spoken of before. To those original readers who are scared for their lives, even dying by Domitian’s sword, John is reminding them of what the ancients said long before. John is calling them to keep running the race and not give up on the glorious plan of God’s redemption of all creation.

And with that, we move on to the final chapter of our Scriptures.


REVELATION: The Fall of the Dragon

As we get closer and closer to the climactic conclusion of the vision of Revelation, we can feel the heat of the ensuing confrontation. We know the beast and the dragon must ultimately be confronted and dealt with. For this, we need to pick up in the last paragraph to the nineteenth chapter.
Then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth and their armies gathered together to wage war against the rider on the horse and his army. But the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who had performed the signs on its behalf. With these signs he had deluded those who had received the mark of the beast and worshiped its image. The two of them were thrown alive into the fiery lake of burning sulfur. The rest were killed with the sword coming out of the mouth of the rider on the horse, and all the birds gorged themselves on their flesh.
And so we find ourselves at that great and final confrontation, which seems to be over as quickly as it begins. Once God decides to act and deliver creation from the order of death and darkness, it’s over. There is no waiting. God’s deliverance is here and the process of renewal commences unhindered. We are told kings of the earth come to fight against the victorious Rider who is called Faithful and True. All the caesars and kings, governors and commanders, emperors and pharaohs line up for battle, but they are too late. The beast is captured, along with the false prophets who performed the signs (more allusions to Exodus, perhaps?), and they were thrown into the lake of burning sulfur.

What I think most of us miss is that this has all happened before in the Book of Daniel. Because of our Christian theology and its relentless focus on the last day of judgment, I think we read these passages and immediately start thinking of people — souls being cast into eternal torment. But what should be clear by now is that we are talking about images of empire and the false imperial narrative holding the world hostage. That John calls us directly to Daniel 7:11 for this image should reinforce the point. Daniel, a book written about the injustice of empire, had already used this apocalyptic image to make the same point. John simply reemploys this mechanic to do so again.
And I saw an angel coming down out of heaven, having the key to the Abyss and holding in his hand a great chain. He seized the dragon, that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan, and bound him for a thousand years. He threw him into the Abyss, and locked and sealed it over him, to keep him from deceiving the nations anymore until the thousand years were ended. After that, he must be set free for a short time.
John then describes an angel descending from heaven, with the keys to tehom — Hebrew for “the abyss.” This is a call back to the beginning of the story of Genesis. We are told in the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, that darkness was over tehom; and out of that primordial chaos, God spoke order into being. This angel descends with the keys to that primordial chaos where it all began. The dragon, “the Satan” in the Hebrew mind, is seized and thrown into that tehom so the nations might see things as they truly are.

Many get hung up on the phrase that Satan “must be set free for a short time.” But we usually miss that John is continuing to run right down the narrative of Daniel for his apocalyptic purposes. When the Text speaks of the Abyss being “sealed up” over him — having just referenced the book of Daniel — everyone would have realized it is the same phrase used when Daniel is thrown into the lion’s den so that (as the Book of Daniel puts it) “the purpose might not be changed concerning Daniel.” God is shutting up Satan in the Abyss in order to accomplish His purposes.
I saw thrones on which were seated those who had been given authority to judge. And I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded because of their testimony about Jesus and because of the word of God. They had not worshiped the beast or its image and had not received its mark on their foreheads or their hands. They came to life and reigned with Christ a thousand years. (The rest of the dead did not come to life until the thousand years were ended.) This is the first resurrection. Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years.
Ah, yes — the famous “millennial reign” passage. I hope we notice how obscure this reference is for all the hoopla made over it. We argue about pre-millennial, post-millennial, or a-millennial and draw entire eschatological theologies about this lone passage. It seems a bit overdone and out of place by now, I hope. At this point in our journey, numbers should make us think more like an easterner and less like a mathematician. This thousand-year reign is the Jewish equivalent of talking about an era or epoch of time. This is a Jewish way of saying, “There will be an era where the Kingdom of God is seen clearly for what it is.” It’s an apocalyptic message of hope, that all of this struggle isn’t in vain.

And this is reinforced by John’s statement above, which happens to be the point of that paragraph; this is usually missed as we argue about the millennial reign of Christ. You see, John wants everybody to know that all of those who have given their lives notto worship the beast and take his mark — all of those who gave their lives to live rightly — they get to reign with Christ. This is all a continual reference to Daniel (see Daniel 7:9).

Jewish belief in the first century, built upon their understanding of the vision of Daniel, was that those who died unjustly for walking the paths of righteousness would be honored in “the resurrection.” As the Jews looked forward to the “age to come” — or olam haba, as we’ve studied before — they pictured a world where everything was made right and justice ultimately prevailed. Jewish apocryphal works spoke about the righteous ones who died for righteousness being raised in the resurrection to reign with God and help Him restore the world. This happens to be where John goes next in the paragraph above as he references a first resurrection and a second death, which is often confusing to us, and I’ve witnessed some incredible theological gymnastics performed in order to make these references make sense in our eschatology.
When the thousand years are over, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations in the four corners of the earth—Gog and Magog—and to gather them for battle. In number they are like the sand on the seashore. They marched across the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of God’s people, the city he loves. But fire came down from heaven and devoured them. And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.
John is not naive to the fact that the future lying ahead of us will be hard and filled with toil. He mentions that when Satan is “released” from his Abyss, he will mount one last effort to overthrow the true King, assembling all of the nations and Gog and Magog (more references from the Tanakh) for that great and final battle in the Valley of Jezreel — the battle of Armageddon. All of this will be far too little, far too late for Satan, as the beast, the dragon, and the picture of empire is done away with — forever.

It would be worth reminding ourselves that if we read these things too literally, we completely miss the point John is making, and we might turn his apocalyptic vision of encouragement into a crystal ball of future happenings. This is John’s message: It looks like empire is winning. It will not. You must overcome, because in the end, the dragon and the beast are defeated. Even when he mounts his last gasping attempt, God’s kingdom emerges victorious.

Or in Jesus’s words from the gospels, “ You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, … do not believe it.” Just go about the business of bringing God’s kingdom — God’s shalom — crashing into earth. To try to figure out how all of these images fit into current events is a gigantic adventure in missing the inspired point of Revelation.
Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
John closes with even more references to Daniel. The idea of the Book of Life is not a Christian idea; the book of Daniel spoke of the sefer chayyim long before the New Testament did. In fact, Jews believe the “Book of Life” is recited every Yom Kippur as God justifies the righteous each year. Again, John’s larger point here is that everything is being made right, not one name is forgotten, and everything is being put in its appropriate place.

And in case we were waffling on what the “second death” and “first resurrection” were, John tells us at the closing of chapter twenty. The “first death” is the obvious one that all of us will experience. The “second death” is the final destruction of evil and the Devil once and for all. The “second death” is the final victory of the Order of Life. In the same way, the “first resurrection” is the apocalyptic belief that the righteous will be given their opportunity to reign in the world to come. The “second resurrection” is the final victory that ushers in such a world for all of eternity.

Pictures and images.

Pictures and images.

Are the pictures true? Sure.

Do we know how these would look in a literal application? Not at all.

What is John’s point? Hope. John’s point is hope. John’s point is that God wins.


REVELATION: The Greatest Hallelujah

So we have seen the eminent demise of empire.

The olympic games have concluded, and the victor is taking the stand.

The verdict is in and the gavel has been slammed.

The beast has been shown for what it truly is.
After this I heard what sounded like the roar of a great multitude in heaven shouting:
Salvation and glory and power belong to our God,
    for true and just are his judgments.
He has condemned the great prostitute
    who corrupted the earth by her adulteries.
He has avenged on her the blood of his servants.”
And with that, the song of triumph begins for all of God’s people. For all who did not desire the ways of the dragon and who did not take the mark of the beast, there is hope. For all who persevered and overcame, there was vindication. Just as we saw time and time again through the letters to the seven churches, God was waiting to crown those who overcome with a crown of righteousness and the opportunity to eat from the tree of life.
And again they shouted:
The smoke from her goes up for ever and ever.”
The twenty-four elders and the four living creatures fell down and worshiped God, who was seated on the throne. And they cried:
“Amen, Hallelujah!”
Then a voice came from the throne, saying:
“Praise our God,
    all you his servants,
you who fear him,
    both great and small!”
Then I heard what sounded like a great multitude, like the roar of rushing waters and like loud peals of thunder, shouting:
    For our Lord God Almighty reigns.
Let us rejoice and be glad
    and give him glory!
For the wedding of the Lamb has come,
    and his bride has made herself ready.
Fine linen, bright and clean,
    was given her to wear.”
(Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.)
John quotes or alludes to all kinds of writings from Israel’s past. He starts with Isaiah (compare Isaiah 34:10 to Revelation 19:3). By doing this, John is doing so much more than simply calling for the fiery judgment of God’s enemies. John is referencing the ancient imprecatory prayers of God’s people. Imprecatory prayers (often seen in the Psalms) are prayers where God’s people cry out for justice in the face of injustice. These passages are often incredibly difficult to read (or not, for some of us) as we try to theologically square them with a God of love and forgiveness. But imprecatory prayers were actually quite revolutionary for their day. Instead of turning to pagan magic (i.e., casting “spells” or harmful curses on another, prevalent in Canaanite through Greco-Roman cultures), these prayers would voice one’s true feelings while simultaneously turning the outcome (and vengeance) over to God.

By quoting Isaiah, John is saying the justice — or mishpat, as we’ve studied before — that those long past have cried out for is finally upon us. The world is being made right. And everything that people throughout the ages have endured is finding its culmination in this moment. As we’ve seen before, this moment is being displayed as a great wedding feast — a central image in the narrative of God.
Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.”
At this I fell at his feet to worship him. But he said to me, “Don’t do that! I am a fellow servant with you and with your brothers and sisters who hold to the testimony of Jesus. Worship God! For it is the Spirit of prophecy who bears testimony to Jesus.”
John is so overcome by what happens around him (in his vision) that he must be stopped from worshipping the wrong individuals. This leads to a statement more profound than we realize when the angel tells him about the Spirit of prophecy. For most of first-century Judaism, the belief was that the Spirit of prophecy had gone missing some time ago. According to the prophet Amos, God told the people of Israel that He would shut up the mouths of the prophets; Joel had also prophesied that those prophesies would one day return when the restoration of all things was finally upon us. Most Jews saw their current situation as being void of the Spirit of prophecy; John is insinuating that a new day of restoration — the Age to Come, or olam haba — was upon them. The Spirit of prophecy is back!
I saw heaven standing open and there before me was a white horse, whose rider is called Faithful and True. With justice he judges and wages war. His eyes are like blazing fire, and on his head are many crowns. He has a name written on him that no one knows but he himself. He is dressed in a robe dipped in blood, and his name is the Word of God. The armies of heaven were following him, riding on white horses and dressed in fine linen, white and clean. Coming out of his mouth is a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations. “He will rule them with an iron scepter.” He treads the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God Almighty. On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written:

And I saw an angel standing in the sun, who cried in a loud voice to all the birds flying in midair, “Come, gather together for the great supper of God, so that you may eat the flesh of kings, generals, and the mighty, of horses and their riders, and the flesh of all people, free and slave, great and small.”
And with that, the great hero makes his entrance onto the stage as the closing scenes of the book of Revelation commence. Using imagery from the beginning of the book (itself being pulled from passages in Tanakh), this hero is described as the victorious rider on a white horse. We are told about his name and his character. In similar fashion to the opening of this vision, he still has a long sword of judgment coming from his mouth. He comes to consume all of creation and put it to righteous judgment. This isn’t so much a judgment of individuals (not that it isn’t about individuals, but the picture here is important), but a judgment of all of creation. This isn’t just about people standing in some cosmic courtroom and being judged as much as it is about all things being made new.

The earth is being made right. Faithfulness and Truth are, in fact, having the last word. And this means evil needs to be dealt with, once and for all.