Sober Optimism: Opposition & Opportunity

By Robert P. Menzies

Not long ago I spoke with a Chinese friend. He indicated that his son, who is a student in an elementary school in China, has been receiving criticism from his teachers.  His son’s teachers do not feel that the young boy is “red” enough.  In other words, they feel he does not exhibit enough passion for the Chinese Communist Party’s propaganda.  The specific issue that caused the teachers’ concern was this boy’s lack of enthusiasm for their negative comments about foreigners, and especially those that propagate religion.  This has become a well-worn theme in Chinese public schools.  This boy is not willing to affirm that these foreigners are “bad people.”  So, his teachers are “concerned” and want him to undergo “counseling,” which would entail one-on-one sessions with a teacher.  Fortunately, my friend and his wife were able to forestall these proposed counseling sessions by emphasizing that everyone in their family loves their country.  Nevertheless, the pressure they are facing, especially as it pertains to their son, is undeniable.  

This conversation reminded me of an earlier discussion I had with this same Chinese friend. This Christian brother described how he spoke in a remote, mountain church.  The church is located in a village about four hours by car and a significant hike from the nearest major city.  This village, which was populated by “Big Flower Miao” and entirely Christian, was extremely isolated.  The villagers had suffered severe persecution during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and thus had withdrawn, as much as possible, from any contact with the government and the outside world.  They received almost no help from the government and even ran their own schools.  Normally, this would not be allowed in today’s China, but in view of their remote location, minority status, and poverty, the government appears to be willing to overlook their independent stance.

Their unwillingness to cooperate with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and receive government support for infrastructure, roads, and schools is also related to their eschatology.  They are, in essence, withdrawing from the society in which they live because they see in it too many beast-like characteristics (Rev. 13).  They are determined to heed the Apostle John’s charge, “Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins” (Rev. 18:4).  They have withdrawn and are waiting for Christ’s return. 

My friend described the church, their history of persecution, and their decision to withdraw and wait.  He then asked me, “What do you think about this kind of response?”  I must confess that my reaction was a mixture of admiration and sadness: admiration for their faith and dedication—they were determined to stand for Christ; sadness, because this group of Christ followers had somehow missed the call that comes to every Christian to engage in God’s great mission by bearing bold witness to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Rather than withdraw, we are called to display and proclaim the kingdom of God! This calls for wisdom in assessing how we can best live in the world but not be a part of the world.  How are we to be salt and light (Mt. 5:13-14) and yet not accommodate to the values and lies of the beast-like entities that claim to rule our world (and often seem to do so)?

My friend and I agreed that, while we could understand why these Miao believers had decided to withdraw and live in isolation, this is not the path that Christ has called his church to pursue.  We hope and pray that we might be able to encourage these Christian brothers and sisters to be faithful by pursuing the dangerous journey of love. This is the journey that was first undertaken by Christ who, even now through the Holy Spirit, enables us to follow in his footsteps.

This conversation did, raise for me, two important questions.  How do we view the world around us, and particularly its political and social institutions? And how will God’s redemptive plan, God’s kingdom, be ushered in in all of its fullness?  The Miao Christians who have withdrawn by living on that remote mountain challenged me to consider carefully these questions.  Concerning the first question, I must admit that this Miao church challenged me to consider how easy it is to accommodate to the values of the beasts of our world.  I do believe that political institutions are both ordained by God (Romans 13) and yet often take on beast-like, anti-Christ characteristics (Revelation 13).  Political institutions and leaders are not only ordained by God, but also accountable to Him.  When they overstep their divinely mandated role (to maintain order by punishing evil), deny God’s authority, and seek to usurp the church’s rightful role, they become the beast. This happened in the first-century (Babylon=Rome, Rev. 17-18) and it has happened frequently ever since.  So, while we are not called to withdraw (cf. Rev. 11:1-13), we are called to view our attachments to this world, to its rulers and its ways, with a critical eye, always seeking to give Christ and his kingdom priority.  May God give our Chinese brothers and sisters wisdom in these matters.  May God grant us all a “sober optimism” that perceives the spiritual forces and opposition that are at work in our world and yet is attentive to the glorious opportunities that God is even now granting us to display and proclaim his kingdom.

There is reason for optimism, sober optimism. The picture John presents of the church in this age is a case in point.  With the image of the “two witnesses” John pictures the Church in the inter-advent period as a powerful, Spirit-empowered community of prophets (as in Luke-Acts, cf. Acts 2:17-21) who bear bold witness for Jesus (Rev. 11:1-13).  While the Church as the “two witnesses” ministers in the power of Moses and Elijah, it is also described as suffering defeat and martyrdom.  This “death” is short-lived, however, and the Church is resurrected and vindicated as victorious, like its Savior (Rev. 11:7-13).  There is here also an emphasis on the nations, those “from every people, tribe, language, and nation”—all the “inhabitants of the earth”—as the object of the Church’s witness (Rev. 11:9-10).  So, in the midst of opposition and persecution, John urges the Church to rely on the Holy Spirit who, through a prophetic enabling, will grant the followers of Christ strength to faithfully bear witness to God and the Lamb.  In the end, the followers of the Lamb will be vindicated and victorious. John understands that this witness must be carried out: “‘not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord” (Zech. 4:6).

John’s vision for his church and ours (the church in the inter-advent period), then, is breathtaking in its audacity. This observation is affirmed by Richard Bauckham, who writes: “Small groups of Christians in hostile surroundings, naturally tempted either to assimilate or to turn in on themselves, are challenged to realize that vision by taking on the whole might of the Roman Empire and winning the nations to God by their faithful witness to his truth. From our [contemporary] perspective we need imagination to grasp the full prophetic daring of John’s vision” (Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation, 145).

Lord, give us vision for your glorious redemptive mission in our present fallen world.  Grant us a sober optimism that flows from the cross, the empty tomb, and Pentecost.  And let our cry be, “Maranatha” (Rev. 22:20)!  That is the ultimate answer to the second question noted above and the true reason for optimism.

For more on a fresh approach to the book of Revelation and eschatology, see Robert Menzies’ recently published book, The End of History: Pentecostals and a Fresh Approach to the Apocalypse. (View book promo PDF)

From the Author: “The End of History does not follow a traditional Assemblies of God reading of the book of Revelation (dispensational premillennial), but I do believe it is ultimately supportive of the spirit and ethos of the eschatology of the early Pentecostal leaders.  More importantly, I would like to think that it is grounded in a clear and edifying exposition of the key biblical texts.”

 – Robert P. Menzies, the Director of the Asian Center for Pentecostal Theology and the author of numerous books, including Spirit and Power: Foundations of Pentecostal Theology (2000), Pentecost: This Story is Our Story (2013), and Christ-Centered: The Evangelical Nature of Pentecostal Theology (2020).

 Praise for The End of History: Pentecostals and a Fresh Approach to the Apocalypse:

“Courageous…eminently helpful and instructive.”– Sam Storms, Ph.D., Bridgeway Church, Oklahoma City, OK

 “…a bold but timely call to revisit Pentecostal eschatology.”— Wonsuk Ma, Ph.D., Dean and Distinguished Professor of Global Christianity at Oral Roberts University.

 “…an alternative worthy of consideration…biblically sound and theo-logically judicious…I can think of no better guide than Menzies.”— Robby Waddell, Ph.D., Professor of New Testament and Early Christian Literature and the Director of the Global Pentecostalism Center at Southeastern University (Lakeland, FL).

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