Insights About Economics & Justice from the Book of Revelation, with Dr. Sean McDonough (Audio)

Audio / Produced by TOW Project

Dr. Sean McDonough, a professor of New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, talks about how the book of Revelation applies to today’s non-church workplaces.

Dr. McDonough has taught New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary since 2000. He also remains active in ministry, teaching Sunday School and preaching occasionally at First Congregational Church in Hamilton, Massachusetts. He is also a speaker for Medair, a Christian relief organization based in Switzerland.

Click here to read the article, Revelation and Work. Dr. McDonough has also authored or co-authored a number of other articles for the Theology of Work Project, including: Joshua & Judges and Work and John and Work.

This interview is also available for download on iTunes here.

Transcript of Podcast

TOW: Talk about the book of Revelation and work…Most people wouldn’t think of theology as being able to provide something [practical] and then the book of Revelation would seem to be the last place you’d look for something meaningful.

SM: Let’s take the big one first. Theology and work. What does one have to do with the other?

I would hope that most people who believe in God would imagine that somehow God must care about what we do. Of course, if you hang out in some churches long enough, you might get the idea that all God cares about is what happens on Sunday. But I think if you read the Bible, at random for five minutes, you’re going to see that it’s always bumping up against the stuff of everyday life. And there’s lots and lots of stuff in the Bible that directly addresses work. You can think of the book of Proverbs, some of the things that Paul wrote, you see that Jesus is showing up in the workplace, Matthew’s tax collecting, Peter’s fishing business.—So, it doesn’t take much to see, for any Bible believing Christian that God really does care about work.

And you can undergird that with a sound theology that reminds people that God created everything. He wants every area of life to express his glory. He created people to work. Yes, we have the curse and that makes things difficult. You might justly hate your job, or you might unjustly hate your job, but it’s all part of the fall. But that, too, is part of a robust theology of work—how things go wrong. Theology does have a lot to say about work: why we work, what the point of it is, how we should work, how we treat one another at work.

Revelation in particular, the first thing people have to recognize, is that it’s not simply a prediction of things to come. It includes that, but it’s really a pastoral word that was meant to be heard by John’s people. It’s a letter, just like Paul’s letters, the letters of Peter of James. It’s a letter that’s meant to be heard by people in John’s day. Just as Paul’s letters have ongoing resonance, so would the book of Revelation. "Revelation is a message to the churches. It's not just a prediction."

So the first point is, Revelation is a message to the churches. It’s not just prediction.

When you look at the content of that revelation, even though it comes in this kind of strange visionary form, it becomes pretty clear that our financial lives are very much on the radar of Revelation, and very much part of what John is saying to the churches, what the Spirit is saying through John. And through John not only to those churches then but to our churches now.

Think of the church at Laodicea, a very prosperous city in Asia Minor. They had a wool industry, a medical school, all sorts of wonderful things. The church seemed to be enjoying the economic benefits of the city, but they were impoverished spiritually. So there’s an example where, perhaps something of a traditional view, that wealth can be a corrupting influence on one’s relationship with God. That’s certainly there. And by contrast some of the other churches are materially poor but spiritually rich.

Likewise, when we go into the visionary material, in chapter 18, we have this extended critique of Babylon, which is both the Roman empire of John’s day, but also all evil empires through the ages. And one of the reasons it’s critiqued is for its exploitative economic practices.—Sucking in things - goods and services and people - from their imperial conquests and not really sharing that out equitably. So while those are both negatively portrayed—let’s face it, a lot of the book of Revelation is bringing a word of judgment against corrupt practices—the critical thing is, God has his eye on economic practices. Both on the small scale, on the church community, but also on the big scale. So that gives us a theological vision for God’s concern for these sorts of things.

It doesn’t say in the modern world what constitutes a just economic practice. Should we have fair trade coffee, should we have tariffs on imported goods to protect local workers—all sorts of things that the Bible doesn’t spell out. But it does tell us that God cares about those economic interchanges, He addresses them in His word, and how we do or don’t obey Him in those areas is an immense concern.

TOW: How should we approach the text?

That is a lecture unto itself. How do we interpret the book of Revelation? Of course, perspectives differ. I think on the positive side, we can say that the basic theological thrust of Revelation is no different that the rest of the New Testament. The emphasis is on remaining faithful to Jesus and living a life of faithful obedience. So nothing new there. Particularly avoiding idolatry. So to that extent the message remains the same.

I think Revelation is unique in the images it provides, and I think that helps speak to our imaginations. Not just our linear, rational faculties, but an imaginative portrait of how bad idolatry is and the glorious blessings that await God’s people in the new heavens and the new earth. And all that is providing a big picture vision of the context for our work.

"Our financial lives are very much on the radar of Revelation."So we do have these places like Revelation 18 or the message to Laodicea that address work or economics fairly directly. But I think the chief value of Revelation is letting it speak to our imagination to give us this comprehensive, deep look at the spiritual realities undergirding our everyday lives, and to consider, “How do my own actions tap into these two cities, Babylon and the New Jerusalem?”

TOW: The article Revelation and Work is online. You wrote it…But you weren’t the only one working on that article. It was actually worked on as a group—The Theology of Work Steering Committee—and there was some discussion around it before it was officially published. What were those discussions like? Were there any disagreements in the group on the article? And how did you resolve those disagreements?

…it really was an extremely iterative process. We kept going over and over it from different angles. And it was so helpful to have people from the workplace, theologians, biblical scholars, with a wide range of intellectual interest, a wide range of life experience, all looking at the text in different ways. So it really is not a product of one person, but really a collaborative effort.

TOW: What interested you most about the article Revelation and Work?

SM: I think it’s the big picture it provides, and the imaginative picture it provides. They’re two things I really like. Even from childhood, I loved the mythological stories, and I just loved to think through the deep reasons why things happen. And Revelation, to my mind, is really all about that. Particularly in the contrast of the holy trinity—the Father, Son and Holy Spirit—who have this city that expresses their will, the New Jerusalem, contrasted to what is Revelation is the Satanic trinity—the dragon, Satan, the beast who is sort of the Roman and other political powers, and the second beast, the propaganda machine, the false Holy Spirit, and they have a city, a counterfeit city, Babylon. Which looks like the real thing. Partly I think because they describe it as the treasures of God, which have been hoarded into the dragon’s lair to create this illusion of a city, a counterfeit city, sort of the dead end street of a hijacked creation project. So I just love that big vista that Revelation holds out for us.

TOW: So how has the book of Revelation helped you, in your own experience in the workplace, even as a professor at a seminary? How would you say it’s connected to your experience in the workplace?

Again it helps give that—I don’t want to say mythological as if it’s false—but it gives it that big picture of significance and what is the world all about. And I think in Revelation, the allure of idolatry is something that confronts everybody. Am I lecturing because I want people to understand God and the world better, to the extent God enables me to do that by his grace? Or is it bettering my own nest, is it gaining a following for myself? If so, I’m really operating by the principles of the city of man, as Augustine would say. If I’m operating in a Babylonian framework, I’m only in the end serving Satan.

So the point of bifurcating the two cities is not to say that anything that goes by the name of Christian must automatically be good—even if it’s a seminary professor—and then anything in the world is bad. I think it bifurcates in that way helps show the radical choice we face every day to live by the values of the one or the other. It helps make the choices clearer by speaking to our imagination.

TOW: Imagine a pastor is trying to write a sermon on Revelation. How would this article help to shepherd the flock in the workplace?

SM: This could take place in a variety of ways.

If you’re in the messages to the churches, where there are kind of direct—by the standards of Revelation fairly clear—admonitions to do this or not to do this, you can just think, well how would this apply in a given workplace?

Again though, with respect to the article, Revelation 18 and Babylon, just getting pastors to see that God doesn’t just judge people for religious things, but he judges their economic practices, that should get people thinking.

"God judges...economic practices, that should get people thinking...there's a pastoral duty to consider how this applies to your flock."

I think plenty of people would skip over that chapter entirely, or if they addressed it, it would be in some religious context i.e., are you worshipping false gods. Rather than concretely addressing how we gain our money, how we use our money, what sort of economic system we’re entangled with—those are the questions that Revelation 18 asks in very pointed fashionand so there’s a pastoral duty to consider how this applies to your own flock.

TOW: And for the normal Christian in the workplace, what are one or two practical ways that this article can apply to their daily lives?

SM: There’s no need in the critique of Babylon, everyone’s perfectly capable of reading that and thinking, in my workplace, how does this apply?

Equally, I think it’s as practical as can be to know where you’re going. So when we think practically, for example, about how you drive, you might think of, is there a stick shift or not, you might think of car repair, turning, signaling, all these kinds of things you learn in driver’s ed. That’s what people often want from the Bible—practical, immediate directions. But if you have no idea where you’re going, what’s the point of driving? So what Revelation does above all—there are practical helps and various sorts—but what it mostly does is act as a kind of GPS. A “God Positioning System” to say where are you, based on your behavior, your profession of faith, where are you going? And if you’re driving in a certain direction, and it sure looks like you’re heading to Babylon, don’t deceive yourself and think, “No, I’m a Christian, therefore I must be headed for the New Jerusalem, even though my GPS (book of Revelation) is indicating I’m heading the other way.”

Having a vision of the beauty of God’s new creation and the path that it takes to get there—which would include family life, devotional life, etc., but certainly include your work life—having a vision of where you’re headed is surely as practical a thing as could be hoped for. So that’s what I’d say to that.

It is all about the vision, all about the positioning and the direction, the orientation of your life, [toward] the positive vision of the New Jerusalem. And I think Babylon’s very practically helpful to remind you that the temptations of Satan can look very real and alluring. They will lead to certain destruction, which of course is the part of Revelation people all know about—don’t sin or these awful things will befall you. And that’s true, and it’s good to remind ourselves of that.

TOW: That’s great. Thanks so much, Dr. Sean McDonough.