In the midst of the pandemic, I made an observation: It was easy for people to fall into one or the other of two opposite extremes. Some people spent many hours a day reading through the news, consuming the tragedy experienced by each family in the midst of the pandemic, the various sins and distortions brought about by an unjust system, and all of the accompanying absurdities. These people got more and more caught up in the bad news and became increasingly desperate, angry, and miserable.
Meanwhile, there were others who did not care and said, “Looking at all of this disturbs my peace and quiet. Solving this pandemic is the government’s job.” If we do not know the path of God’s righteousness in the midst of suffering, then we will choose either to live in a self-constructed illusion of quietness or to jump in headfirst, where the endless suffering will overwhelm us and make our hearts bitter.
But if we look to Revelation 15, we find that before God brings his people into tribulation, he gives them reassurance rooted in the gospel to withstand it. Those who were victorious in their earthly battles stand by the shore of a sea of glass in heaven, worshiping God. This sea of glass—the sea of hope—is a biblical image that encompasses our suffering. It is a grace that connects the chaos of our earthly lives with the transparent sea of glass of the future, providing us with a way through our suffering.
There are many metaphors about the sea in Chinese culture. Buddhism, for example, refers to this earthly world of troubles as a sea of suffering. Meanwhile, lust causes people to fall and lose their character, so we call it the sea of desire. Sin keeps spreading and is impossible to cut off, so it is called the sea of iniquity. Uncontrolled anger is referred to as the sea of rage. Wealthy families are hard to approach, so we Chinese compare the complexity of nobilities to the sea. The bureaucracy is unstable like the ebb and flow of the sea, so we call it the imperial sea. When the Chinese consider academic training to be very difficult, we call it the sea of learning. Endless homework is referred to as the sea of problems. We feel insignificant in the midst of a huge mass of people, hence the phrase “sea of people.” In all these cultural idioms, the sea is endless, full of unknown threats, devouring, and the enemy of a happy life.
This scene in front of the sea of glass signifies that the victorious have come to the end of their waiting. All of creation that once labored and groaned is now filled with brilliance, and all things are restored to order. Revelation 21:1 speaks of a new heaven and a new earth, where the sea is no more. Interpreting this in conjunction with the sea of glass in Revelation 15, we find that the image of the sea is not gone, but rather the devouring power of the seas of sin, suffering, death, and the Devil. All creatures will worship the glory of God the King, while the sons of God appear by a glorious sea of glass, transparent and full of light and warmth.
During a pandemic, many people could be quarantined. Imagine a man with a very heavy workload, who could not go outside. He looked out the window and did his monotonous job over and over again every day. He felt on the verge of depression. He could not stop wondering: When can I finally go outside? One day, a friend called him. They talked for a long time and agreed that when the pandemic ends, they will go on a vacation together. They even set a destination for the vacation. Over the next few days, whenever he felt restless at work, he went online and enjoyed looking at pictures of their destination and began planning out an itinerary. Whenever he closed his eyes, the scenes of their destination came to life, and his heart was filled with anticipation and joy. A person in the midst of a pandemic can get a great deal of relief, relaxation, and anticipation just thinking about a future vacation.
Likewise, a Christian or church in the midst of suffering can rejoice greatly at the thought that at the end of this life, they will be met with a glorious view before the throne of God. What great hope this brings to those who are persevering, so that even in the face of persecution, they stand firm till the end. The beautiful, heavenly home awaiting us makes all of our current earthly sufferings worth it. As Paul says in Romans 8:18: “For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (ESV). For the children who struggle in the sea of learning, for the people who struggle in the sea of suffering, for the men and women who are tormented in the sea of rage, for those who are agonized by guilt in the sea of sin: The sea of glass is our hope, and this hope gives us joy.
Right now, some may be thinking that I am saying it is important to have something to visualize or hope for as long as we live, and that those who live without positive thinking are like prisoners, trapped animals, walking corpses. When I was young and lived in the midst of ideological propaganda, there was a cliché we often heard: “This expresses the people’s vision of a better future.” I was especially antagonistic whenever I heard this phrase as a child because before long, I realized it was fake; and this realization produced a terrible consequence in my soul: I stopped trusting any promises about the future.
But a person cannot live without expectations, without visions, because then they are just a walking corpse. It is important to have thoughts, hopes, and visions, but is it just a matter of making them up arbitrarily? After all, they are a psychological comfort, a form of sustenance. Many contemporary Chinese intellectuals are fond of saying that we need a spiritual home, and so many fictional utopian novels have appeared throughout history, such as Thomas More’s Utopia or Tommaso Campanella’s The City of the Sun. They even inspired the formation of communism and socialism. And in all of the fairy tales, we find the theme of a perfect and beautiful place, and we Chinese call that place the “Peach Blossom Spring.”
But visualization is not all that we need. In fact, the difference between a God-inspired idea and a manmade fiction is very much like the difference between heaven and earth. Manmade fictions bring only cotton candy–like self-comfort, but the visions revealed by God bring solid security and sturdy hope. This image of the sea of glass is neither fiction nor the imaginings of men. This image is the revelation of the Bible, which is built upon the foundation of salvation history throughout the whole Bible. Revelation 15 is not a product of the imagination, but rather a reliable hope that comes from God’s revelation. God’s past works are true and trustworthy, and all that is left is the final scene. The glory of that final act will be fulfilled.
Paul Peng is pastor of a house church in China.
This is an excerpt from Faith in the Wilderness: Words of Exhortation from the Chinese Church, edited by Hannah Nation and Simon Liu (April 27, 2022).