And I saw as it were a sea of glass mingled with fire; and them that come off victorious from the beast, and from his image, and from the number of his name, standing by the sea of glass, having harps of God (Revelation 15:2).
This is not exactly what most people would call a “victory.”
Victory involves conquering or winning. A victorious sports team generally has more points than the defeated sports team and has thus won. A victorious army maintains the field and the defeated army has been beaten back or routed. In hand-to-hand combat, the one who lives is victorious; the one who is killed has been defeated.
As part of the vision Jesus gives to him, John has seen a powerful beast, representing the world power arrogating itself against God and seeking to be honored as divine, referring in his own day to the Roman Empire (Revelation 13:1-6). John is also told that this beast was allowed to make war on the saints and conquer them (Revelation 13:7). We naturally understand here how it could be said that the beast gained the victory over the people of God: the beast remains alive while the people of God are not.
Later John will see another vision of heaven: as the angels prepare to pour out the seven bowls of plagues, John sees near a sea of glass mingled with fire “them that come off victorious from the beast and from his image” (Revelation 15:1-2). How can this be? How can those who were defeated now be considered victorious?
It is not as if the saints conquered the beast between Revelation 13:7 and Revelation 15:2: the judgment of God in Christ is being brought upon the beast, but that is not the doing of the people of God. No: those who gained the victory over the beast and his image are the very ones whom the beast defeated, and they gained that victory based on that defeat!
Granted, there are times when a defeated people will attempt to spin their defeat into some sort of victory or to save face in some way, but according to all human and worldly logic this statement is patently ludicrous. Victorious in defeat? Victorious over the victor? This seems to make no sense!
Even though it makes no sense in worldly terms, it is the sustaining hope for the people of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:18-31). Neither Jesus nor John are attempting to sugarcoat the reality here: Christians are being killed. They are giving up their lives as witnesses to Jesus of Nazareth as the Lord Christ, and by all human standards it seems as if the beast has gained the victory over them.
Yet in so doing the beast has done all he can do to them: he can kill them but he can do no more. This is quite similar to what the same power had done earlier to Jesus of Nazareth Himself!
The religious authorities found Jesus of Nazareth to be quite irritating and a major challenge to their power (cf. John 11:46-53). Therefore, they conspired and plotted to do the thing they did with irritants and those who threatened their position: they had Him killed. They proved successful at killing Him; they went home to rest on that Sabbath quite convinced of their victory no doubt (cf. John 19:1-42). They had done all they could do to Him.
But that was not the end of the story: on the third day God raised Jesus from the dead (John 20:1-21:25). Tyranny and death no longer had any power over Him; they could not hurt Him any longer (Romans 6:8-11). Jesus commissioned His twelve disciples as witnesses to His resurrection with power (Acts 1:1-11). By killing Jesus, the Jewish religious authorities did not end His threat to their power; they confirmed it. The message of this “sect of the Nazarene” spread throughout Israel and well beyond its borders. Fifty years later, the religious authorities’ power was destroyed along with their Temple and their city, and Christianity remained, stronger than ever (cf. Matthew 24:1-36).
Jesus’ resurrection changed everything: He defeated death. In defeating death He defanged the greatest power of the tyrant, the threat of death. Sure, a tyrant could still physically kill people, but he could never stop the saints from receiving rest from God while they await the resurrection or the resurrection itself. In fact, by killing Christians, a tyrant merely hastens their joy and glory, for they go to be in the presence of the Lord (Philippians 1:21-24).
So yes, the beast gains victory over the people of God inasmuch as they are killed, but in the grand scheme of things, it is the people of God who have obtained the victory. They stood firm and did not give into the beast or to compromise with him; they continued to exalt Jesus as Lord at the cost of their physical lives. Yet in giving up those lives they have gained an eternal witness and thus stand in the presence of God and Christ as seen in Revelation 15:2. They will obtain the resurrection for eternity; the beast will suffer judgment and be condemned.
Perhaps this seems to be a strange form of a “sustaining hope.” It certainly does not sound pleasant, especially in the short term! Yet it remains a sustaining hope because it helps us to be assured of the ultimate victory for believers in Christ. Very often in the short term it seems as if the powers of evil are ascendant and have the advantage; the hardest thing to do many times is to simply remain faithful. But we should expect this: John has seen it coming. The beast is allowed to gain his victory over the people of God. Yet, as with the Jewish religious authorities, so with the beast: the Roman Empire is no more but Christianity remains ascendant. Plenty of other empires have arisen and persecuted the people of God; they are all relics of a bygone age, but Christianity remains. So it will be in the present generation.
The people of God will obtain the victory through the Lamb of God. The Lamb’s victory certainly does not seem like a victory in the short-term, but in the end, we will see that the result was never really in doubt and too many fell for a short-term delusion. The pleasures of this world, the hostility of the present age, persecution of the faith: these can only last as long as this physical life endures. Yet we know in Christ that is not the end; we await the resurrection of life! Let us find in Jesus crucified and raised our ultimate and sustaining hope and prove willing to suffer with Him so as to be raised in glory like Him!
Ethan R. Longhenry