One rather remarkable passage in Revelation (actually there are many remarkable passages there) is found in ch. 21:6-8: “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’” (vv 6-8).
Several things can be said about this. First, verse 8 presents us with a “vice code,” or list of sins. This is often found in the Bible; other such lists can be seen in Deut 27-28; Rom 1:28-32; 1 Cor 6:9-11; Gal 5:19-21; Eph 5:3-7; I Tim 1:8-11; and 2 Tim 3:1-9.
The second thing to note is who is included in this list. Indeed, what is especially striking about this list of those who displease God and face his judgment is the one first mentioned: the cowardly. Many may not think of cowardice as being all that bad – after all we all get scared at times.
But Scripture sees cowardice as being most certainly sinful. After all, if you belong to God, you have him on your side and him fighting for you. The Bible tells us over and over again to “fear not”. Usually that command – not a mere suggestion – is coupled with the phrase, “I am with you”.
If God is for us, who can be against us? If God is on our side, we have no reason to fear. So cowardice is seen as the opposite of faith and of intestinal fortitude. We are to be courageous, not because of anything in us, but because of Christ.
Grant Osborne in his commentary offers some helpful thoughts here: “While the rest of the list describes the unchurched and wicked who were the enemies of Christianity, this first term probably describes those in the church who fail to persevere but give in to the pressures of the world.
“Whatever one’s position concerning the ‘eternal security’ issue, these would be those who fit the description of passages like Hebrews 6:4-6; 10:26-31; James 5:19-20; 2 Peter 2:20-21; and 1 John 5:16, namely, those in the church who are overcome with sin and leave their ‘faith.’ The reader is being asked to make a choice whether to ‘overcome’ the pressure of the world and refuse to succumb to it or to be a ‘coward’ and surrender to sin. Those who do so will join the unbelieving world in eternal damnation.”
As James Hamilton remarks, “If you trust in Christ and thirst for God, he will be your God – your provider, protector, savior, and defender – and you will be his son, an heir of all that is his. But if God is not what you worship, if you thirst for things other than him, your life will show it. . . . Rather than bold self-abandon for God’s glory, you will be a coward.”
Thirdly, the context here is quite important: the cowards and other sinners are sharply contrasted with what we find in vv. 6-7: the overcomers. The contrast between the overcomers and the cowards could not be more pronounced. Overcoming is of course an important theme in the book of Revelation.
That is why for example William Hendricksen calls his commentary on this book More Than Conquerors. He says this: “In the main, the purpose of the book of Revelation is to comfort the militant Church in its struggle against the forces of evil. It is full of help and comfort for persecuted and suffering Christians. To them is given the assurance that God sees their tears (7:17; 21:4); their prayers are influential in world affairs (8:3, 4) and their death is precious in His sight. Their final victory is assured (15:2); their blood will be avenged (19:2); their Christ reigns for ever and for ever.”
As to the book’s theme, it is “meant to show us that things are not what they seem.” For example, the “beast that comes up out of the abyss seems to be victorious.” It seems like the prayers of the saints are not heard, etc. And those who seem to be the conquerors such as the dragon and the beast are the ones who are actually defeated.
“In short, the theme of the book is stated most gloriously and completely in these words: ‘These shall war against the Lamb, and the Lamb shall conquer them, for he is Lord of lords, and King of kings; and they also shall conquer that are with him called chosen and faithful’ (17:14).”
All the more reason therefore to see cowardice for what it really is: rank unbelief and a refusal to trust God and believe that he is indeed the victor and the conqueror. There is no reason why the church of Jesus Christ should have cowards in its ranks. Yet the church today seems to be full of them.
I have written often before about this problem, and the pressing need for courage and backbone amongst present-day believers. See here for example: https://billmuehlenberg.com/2013/01/28/in-search-of-christian-vertebrates/
We simply have far too many Christian invertebrates out there who will never rock the boat, and stand up and make a difference because of their fear: fear of man, fear of what others will think, fear about their reputation, fear about being unpopular or disliked, and so on.
Let me close here by highlighting one courageous believer who puts most of us to shame. I just stumbled upon some words of hers that actually provided the occasion for this article. I refer to the bold and brash Catholic apologist and polemicist Ann Barnhardt.
Ann has more guts and courage than most evangellyfish put together. I like her. I would rather take one feisty and fearless Catholic over a thousand limp-wristed evangelicals who have never stood up for anything in their life any day of the week.
Of course one need not agree with everything she says. The point is, she has backbone, something lacking in 95 per cent of evangelicals today. She puts most people who claim to be Bible-believing Christians to shame. Let me just refer to one example of this. Two years ago one of her many enemies emailed her a nasty death threat. Here is the email from the Muslim, and Ann’s response:
DEATH THREAT: To: annbarnhardt
I’m going to kill you when I find you. Don’t think I won’t, I know where you and your parents live and I’ll need is one phone-call to kill ya’ll.
Re: Watch your back.
You don’t need to “find” me. My address is 9175 Kornbrust Circle, Lone Tree, CO 80124. Luckily for you, there are daily DIRECT FLIGHTS from Heathrow to Denver. Here’s what you will need to do. After arriving at Denver and passing through customs, you will need to catch the shuttle to the rental car facility. Once in your rental car, take Pena Boulevard to I-225 south. Proceed on I-225 south to I-25 south. Proceed south on I-25 to Lincoln Avenue which is exit 193. Turn right (west) onto Lincoln. Proceed west to the fourth light, and turn left (south) onto Ridgegate Boulevard. Proceed south, through the roundabout to Kornbrust Drive. Turn left onto Kornbrust Drive and then take an immediate right onto Kornbrust Circle. I’m at 9175.
Now that’s what I’m talking about. That is some backbone. She is no spineless religionist who backs off from her faith every time a challenge comes her way. She is far more of a man than most men are!
Would that we had more courageous and daring souls like her. Until we can find more believers with backbone, we will keep on losing and live in defeat. Let me conclude with the stirring words of some great saints of the past:
“I often laugh at Satan, and there is nothing that makes him so angry as when I attack him to his face, and tell him that through God I am more than a match for him.” Martin Luther
“Even a dog barks when his master is attacked. I would be a coward if I saw that God’s truth is attacked and yet would remain silent.” John Calvin
“Oh, my brethren! Bold-hearted men are always called mean-spirited by cowards.” Charles Spurgeon
“Courage is not simply one of the virtues, but the form of every virtue at the testing point.” C. S. Lewis
“It’s going to demand a lot of courage before too long— to really live and maintain the true Christian life according to the Word of the Living God.” Leonard Ravenhill