What Does the Book of Revelation Say About the “Big Picture” of Work in Our Times?
While Revelation is difficult to crack, it has a number of relevant lessons about the “big picture” of work today.
A quick word about interpreting the book of Revelation: Some scholars believe Revelation relates to events that happened in the past (late first century A.D., when it was written); others believe that it addresses future events. We formed our approach taking both of these views into consideration. However, those who interpret the book from the standpoint of the past acknowledge that it does reflect the ultimate future (e.g. the New Jerusalem). Meanwhile, the “futurist” group usually acknowledges that the events in the future are modeled on God’s work in the past, particularly the Creation and the Exodus from Egypt. Therefore, it's not a stretch for us to gather enduring spiritual truths from the images in Revelation, nor is it unreasonable to draw implications for the future.
Lesson 1: Our work here is not in vain.
In Revelation, the Bible ends where it begins: on earth. We do not leave the earth for a new heavenly dwelling. Instead, “the holy city, the New Jerusalem” comes down from heaven (Rev.21:2), and God dwells with us (Rev.21:3) here, in a renewed creation.
Of course, it is not clear how our present work will transfer from the current stage of eternity into the next. However, we are also reassured by the following verses that our present work is not in vain.
Rev.14:13 (NRSV): And I heard a voice from heaven saying, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.” “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follo
1 Cor.15:58 (NRSV): Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.
Lesson 2: Economics is a moral issue.
Revelation discusses God’s judgment against the city of “Babylon.” Babylon represents humanity’s attempt to build an economic-cultural system apart from God. Outwardly, wealth and material abundance overflow (Rev.17:4, Rev.18:15-19, Rev.18:3). However, the cargo list in Rev.18:11-13 reveals underlying depravity and idolatry. Babylon’s culture is such that people are willing to pursue self-indulgence at the cost of human exploitation: “…cargo of gold, silver, jewels and pearls, fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet, all kinds of scented wood, all articles of ivory, all articles of costly wood, bronze, iron, and marble, cinnamon, spice, incense, myrrh, frankincense, wine, olive oil, choice flour and wheat, cattle and sheep, horses and chariots, slaves—and human lives.”
That is not to say that abundance can’t be a blessing from God. The gifts of work, trade, arts and agriculture, for example, are good. However, pursued apart from worship of God, they can be twisted to serve idols of wealth, status, greed and false security, even at the price of human life. Material wealth can mask spiritual poverty.
Lesson 3: Followers of Jesus are to live and work in ways that glorify God, even if it results in negative personal economic consequences.
The Beast in Revelation may represent the ruler of an idolatrous system, or be an archetype of such rulers. Those who don’t have “the mark of the beast” are not allowed to “buy or sell (Rev.13:17).” Thus, scripture indicates that refusing to follow the world’s system of worship can result in negative economic consequences. However, Revelation also reminds us that “the time is near (Rev.1:3).” In other words, “God’s kingdom is near”, which prompts the challenge, “how, then, will you choose to live?” We are called to serve God alone, knowing that the kingdom is at hand. Followers of Jesus must strive to create workplaces where justice and the common good are upheld, and people can develop the gifts God has given them.
Read the full commentary on the book of Revelation from the Theology of Work Bible Commentary here.