The fifth chapter of the book of Revelation begins with a poignant image. John of Patmos has just been shown an awe-inspiring vision of the throne of God. Surrounding the throne in John’s vision, the entire animate creation worships the one on the throne. In chapter five, though, a shadow falls. John sees a scroll in the right hand of the one on the throne. From how John describes this scroll (“written on the inside and on the back, sealed with seven seals,” 5:1) and regards it (begging for it to be opened), we get the impression that he’s describing history fulfilled.
John sees the scroll but is overcome with grief at the thought that it may not be opened. Who can open the scroll? “No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it” (5:3). The question of power is a basic human issue. How is the scroll of the redemption of history to be opened? What kind of power serves the outcomes we desire?
We tend to think of power in terms of the ability to control events, to force others to do one’s will. We often link political power with the ability to use violence. We would most likely answer the question of how to open the scroll by asserting the need to “force” it open, to open it by firepower.
Is it possible, though, that the kinds of power that human beings have exerted in trying to “open the scroll” have not been the power needed to move history along toward authentic fulfillment of the human project?
In Revelation five, John, like most people, seems to assume the scroll will be opened by firepower, power as domination. He weeps bitterly when he thinks no one can be found to open the scroll. However, John then hears an audacious claim. One of the elders immediately comforts John. “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals” (5:4). These images evoke a mighty warrior king who will open the scroll with the use of force. John’s vision continues, though, with a shockingly different claim. He may have heard the promise of a warrior king to open the scroll, but he actually sees something altogether different.
“Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered, having seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. He went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one who was seated on the throne. When he had taken the scroll, the four creatures and the twenty-four elders fell before the Lamb.” (5:6-8).
According to the next few verses, the creatures and elders, and ultimately the rest of creation, worship this Lamb as the one who does have the power to open the scroll.
“Power” and biblical apocalyptic
How does this claim for the power of the Lamb correspond with the claim that power-as-domination is the only way to address the huge problems of human history?
To answer this question, we need to reflect on the message of the biblical “apocalyptic.” If we focus on biblical uses of “revelation” (from the Greek apokalypsis) and consider these uses in the context of the rest of the Bible, we will find that power according to biblical apocalyptic does cohere with John’s vision in Revelation five. The power that biblical apocalyptic understands to be decisive in human history, “opening the scroll,” is the power of suffering love and communal faithfulness, not the power of coercive force.
The crucial text for understanding biblical apocalyptic for Christians comes at the very end of the Bible, the book of Revelation. The term “apocalyptic” as a label for a genre of ancient Jewish and Christian literature comes from the first several words in Revelation: “The revelation (apokalypsis) of Jesus Christ.” The linking together of apocalypse with Jesus Christ provides our first essential clue for understanding power in biblical apocalyptic. The power of biblical apocalyptic is the power of Jesus Christ.
In most writing on biblical apocalyptic, apocalyptic power, is portrayed as top-down power, the power of might and coercion, vengeance and judgment. As a consequence of God’s exercise of such power, every knee is forced to bow before God—either in joyful submission or in defeated submission.
Do these assumptions about power accurately capture the sense of what John believes allows the Lamb to open the scroll?
Apocalyptic power in Revelation
Clearly, the book of Revelation means to convey a sense of crisis. It portrays a sense of impending catastrophe, along with a polarized view of reality. We see separated forces of good and evil at war with one another and demanding absolute allegiance. Life and death themselves are at stake in the choice of people’s loyalties. However, we need to pay close attention to the way power is construed in the book in order to have a better sense of how John envisions the scroll to be opened and the conflicts to be resolved.
What characterizes “apocalyptic power” according to the book of Revelation?
(1) The book’s self-designation as a “revelation of Jesus Christ” reminds readers of Jesus’ persevering, self-giving, transforming love as the truly creative power of the universe—in direct contrast with the type of power embodied in Empire (signified in Revelation as the “Beast”).
This contrast reflects Revelation’s agenda. The “revelation” of Jesus correspondingly reveals the nature of the Empire that demanded Christians’ loyalty. John’s visions disillusion. To see through eyes of faith in the Lamb and his way undercuts the Beast’s hegemonic demands of Revelation’s audience. The power to perceive the character of the true God and the contrast between that character and the true nature of the Beast stands at the heart of biblical apocalyptic.
The story of Jesus continually portrayed Jesus’ message as a challenge to sight. See the world and your place in it in light of Jesus’ good news of God’s love. In the context of the rest of the New Testament, John’s attempt to convey the message of Jesus as a “revelation” mostly underscores how “correct sight” was at the heart of the Christian message.
Revelation’s urgency stems from John’s concern with how people of the promise struggle to worship God aright and not trust in idols. Just as the first Hebrews faced the choice between believing in the inevitability of the domination of Pharaoh’s empire or trusting in Yahweh, just as later Israelites faced the choice between the Babylonian and then Persian empires and Yahweh, just as Jesus challenged his followers to choose between God and Caesar, for John of Patmos, a key choice his audience faced was who would be the object of their trust—the God of the Bible or almighty “Babylon” (Rome). To respond appropriately to this challenge, John’s audience (he believed) needed to have clear sight.
They needed a reminder—a revelation of the true message of Jesus.
The book of Revelation came into being in the late first century. Traditionally, Revelation has been seen as set in the context of intense persecution from the Roman Empire. However, more recent scholarship questions whether overt, widespread persecution would have existed. Certainly, the book indicates spots of persecution among the seven churches, though only one direct case of martyrdom is mentioned.
Among the seven churches, John fears his readers conforming to their surroundings more than immediate persecution.
John seems mostly concerned with emphasizing this choice: follow the way of Jesus or seek to fit in comfortably with the imperial Asia Minor environment. His vehement rhetoric and dramatic visions speak most directly to challenging the imaginations of his readers to recognize the deep-seated dangers of making wrong choices.
The power of the Roman Empire stemmed from its control over cultural religious practices. These practices reinforced the popular sense of the Empire’s status as blessed by the gods as inevitable and all-dominating. Dissent from these practices would lead to the threat of sanctions, including overt violence. These cultural religious practices “lent legitimacy to the entire socio-historical arrangement of the first-century Roman Empire.” The empire had a strong presence in each of the seven cities mentioned in Revelation 2–3; several of these cities, served as centers of imperial religion, hosting major temples.
The key “revelation” in John’s text is not actually about particular events that literally are to come. Rather, it has to do with perceiving the import of Christians’ fundamental choice of loyalties.
Why would John have been so certain that Rome’s vision for human life was incompatible with Jesus’? Many of the Empire’s achievements seemed to have served human well-being—the cessation of the many civil wars and other violent conflicts that had plagued the Mediterranean world, the development of secure transportation routes that allowed commerce to flourish, the development of a common language throughout the Empire.
Yet, in John’s view, the sense of order the Empire had established rested on a fundamental core of violence and injustice (the word for “injustice,” adikia, is also translated “wickedness”). John feared that Christians’ acceptance of the Empire’s construal of reality would actually separate them from the God of Jesus. He refers to the Empire’s dependence upon violence and coercion as its bases for authority. Its expansion of commerce rested on oppression, even trafficking in human souls (18:13).
The Empire ultimately links with the spiritual reality of the powers of evil that held responsibility for all the murders of authentic prophets and saints throughout the years (18:24).
So, in John’s view, the power of Rome is primarily power in service of evil. Creative, life-giving power, in contrast, is to be found in the Lamb’s way of persevering love and self-sacrifice.
(2) The nature of power according to biblical apocalyptic may also be seen in the fruit of God’s “apocalyptic intervention.” This intervention does not turn out to lead to the catastrophic end of human history nor the massive and violent punishment of God’s human enemies. Rather, God intervenes to create and sustain an alternative community to Rome—for this world, not for some “after-world.”
John seeks to foster a sense of crisis, presenting visions and proclamations of impending traumas and great conflicts. Chapter 12 does this by conveying a war in heaven.
“Michael and his angels [fighting] against the dragon” (12:7). Then the dragon is thrown out of heaven and takes the war to earth, making war on the children of the woman, “those who keep the commandments of God and hold the testimony of Jesus” (12:17).
The surrounding chapters contain many similar images of conflict, trauma, intense struggle, and suffering.
From these visions, we get Revelation’s apparent “apocalyptic” sense of unimaginable and world-ending catastrophes. However, when read closely we see something else actually going on. These visions are not meant to predict literal events. Rather, they are meant to clarify the importance of the churches in God’s purposes for the world and to steel those churches to embody a genuine social alternative to Rome.
Chapter five has already made clear (as, indeed, have comments from the very beginning of the book) that, in reality, no future war of Armageddon will happen. The decisive battle is past. When the Lamb was slain and rose back to life, the victory was won for all time.
The pictures of crises and catastrophes serve a different kind of purpose than predicting some future, wide-open battle. Rather, they portray the continual struggle to perceive that the Lamb’s victory is genuine. This victory is worth Christians shaping their lives around. John’s visions refute the claims from Babylon concerning the nature of power and the outcome of history.
John intends these visions of crisis to empower the community of the followers of the Lamb to stay together and resist the powers of Babylon. God’s “apocalyptic” intervention to bring salvation through the Lamb’s faithfulness creates and sustains communities of resistance. God’s apocalypse empowers these communities for following the Lamb wherever he goes and living as faithful witnesses who “conquer” through suffering love rather than violence and the sword.
This book’s revelation of Jesus Christ most of all reveals that those who worship the Lamb contain within their common life and faithful witness the same kind of power that enables the Lamb to open the scroll. “Apocalyptic power” finds its paradigmatic expression in the formation and sustenance of these communities. In making this point, Revelation (as I argue below) continues in the biblical apocalyptic tradition as seen in Paul’s writing, Jesus’ proclamation, the prophesies we call Second Isaiah, and the exodus story: God intervenes in the midst of catastrophic events most fundamentally by creating and sustaining communities of resistance.
This is the fruit of God’s apocalyptic power: communities of resistance empowered to follow the Lamb wherever he goes and witness to persevering love as the fundamental rule of the universe.
(3) A third characteristic of “apocalyptic power” may be seen in how it provides sustenance for those communities of resistance. John writes to encourage the actual communities he describes in chapters two and three. And his message is not simply, hang on tight for a short time, the end of history will soon come. Rather, John encourages his readers to establish ways of being that will sustain them over time.
The book begins with the affirmation that Jesus is “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5). Given what follows in the book, this affirmation instills in readers a sense that right now the churches’ “ruler” is supreme over all other rulers. John emphasizes the present fruit of Jesus’ work: he “loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and makes us to be a kingdom (or, ‘empire’), priests serving his God and Father” (1:6). It is through the common life of the followers of Jesus that they share in Jesus’ rule, exist as an alternative “kingdom” to the Roman Empire, and freely serve God.
John then relays a vision of Jesus (“one like the Son of Man,” 1:12) walking among the “seven golden lampstands,” that is, among the churches (1:20). This vision encourages John’s readers with Jesus’ presence among them as “the living one” who has come back from the dead and has “the keys of Death and Hades” (1:19).
Chapters two and three especially underscore John’s intent to sustain the life of the communities of faith over time (rather than prepare them for an immediate end of history). These seven messages anchor the book as a whole in the world of actual congregations facing actual challenges to faithfulness.
In chapter five, the vision of the slain Lamb standing victorious as a present reality based on past action underscores that the congregations are challenged to walk faithfully with the one who already holds the outcome of history. This sense of the definitive triumph of the Lamb encourages the congregations. Their embodied suffering love coheres completely with the true power of the one seated on the throne who creates, sustains and brings to fulfillment.
One of the more ambiguous visions in Revelation follows shortly after the vision of the triumphant Lamb. Chapter six begins, “then I saw the Lamb open one of the seven seals…” Then follows the first of several series of catastrophic plagues. Conquering, war, famine, martyrdom, and the like erupt as the seals are broken.
How do we understand the connection between the Lamb opening the seals and the traumas that arise? If we take the Lamb metaphor as our ruling motif, and understand it to be portraying the victorious one in Revelation as the same suffering servant of the gospels, we will be suspicious of interpretations that see the plagues as a positive action that the Lamb initiates. We may understand the vision of the Lamb opening the scrolls as a statement of how even the terrible events of human history are not able to overcome the history-transforming work of the suffering love of the Lamb.
The portrayal of the Lamb revealing the contents of the scroll means to encourage the congregations. This revelation ultimately unveils New Jerusalem as the destination of all who allow themselves to be transformed by the Lamb’s love (including “kings of the earth,” 21:24). The congregations may see that the traumas they experience in the course of human history do not mean that God’s transforming work is null and void.
Throughout, John slips in visions of multitudes worshiping, offering thanksgiving, reiterating their commitments to the Lamb and the one seated on the throne as the true sovereigns of human existence. These worship visions model for believers the spirit of worship that should characterize their common life. They also remind believers that no matter how overwhelming the plagues may seem, the God of Jesus remains the true God and worthy of their trust.
Chapter thirteen portrays the immense power of the Beast in visions that carry great force. But rather than intimidating the believer, these visions are best read in the context of the entire book and the triumphant Lamb. When read thus, they do not so much fill the reader with fear as to help the reader discern the true character of the Empire. With such discernment, John’s readers will be empowered to clarify their loyalties and resist the tendency to accept the Empire’s claims to be their true “benefactor.”
The flip-side to visions on the character of the Beast and the fates of the Harlot and Babylon may be seen in the celebration of the marriage of the Lamb in chapter 19. The “bride” is none other than the community of faith John has been exhorting throughout this book. The possibility of joining this celebration follows from the bride having “made herself ready” (19:7) through her faithfulness.
A final example of how Revelation speaks to the life of the community of faith over the long haul may be seen in the final contrast of the book—between two very different communities, Babylon and New Jerusalem. John means the final several chapters of the book to show this contrast. He introduces his two visions of the fates of the two competing “empires.” He begins chapter 17, the vision of Babylon’s downfall, with these words: “Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the judgment of the great whore….” (17:1). Then, in chapter twenty one, the vision of New Jerusalem’s emergence is introduced with the same words: “Then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls …came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb” (21:9).
The book reaches its conclusion with the contrast being drawn: Iin which of these two communities will you all find your home?
A fourth characteristic of apocalyptic power may be seen in the contrast between the two ways of conquering portrayed in the book. The two ways of conquering define the difference between citizens of Babylon and citizens of the New Jerusalem. John sees a spiritual struggle defining human existence. It is either “conquer” or “be conquered.” But, for those who would be conquerors, the question centers on the nature of the conquering.
The ones to whom the messages to the churches in chapters two and three promise rewards are labeled as “conquerors.” Most of the rewards in those messages anticipate later visions in the book, underscoring the unity between the exhortations to the actual faith communities and the visions that follow. The purpose of the later visions serves the exhortations to the actual communities.
What kind of power allows one to be rewarded as a “conqueror”? Chapters two and three provide hints. Hold fast to love as definitive of your life as God’s people (2:4). Listen to Jesus (2:1, 8, 12, 18; 3:1, 7,14). Remain faithful unto death in the face of persecution (2:10). Reject the teachings of those who advocate giving loyalty to the Beast (2:14; 2:20). Commit yourselves to following the Lamb (3:10). Chapter five makes the basis for conquering absolutely clear. The Lamb’s persevering, suffering love, sustained throughout the onslaught of the Powers who crucified him, won him the victory, validated by God’s bringing him back to life.
In contrast, the Dragon, Beast, and their allies “conquer” with violence, force, deception, intimidation, and domination. This kind of conquering seems overwhelming, “who can stand against it?” Even as John asks that question, though, he supplies the answer. Those who follow the Lamb wherever he goes (14:4) conquer, celebrating their victory with worship of the true God amidst their tribulations.
The ultimate “battle” scene underscores the nature of the conquering of the Lamb and how that contrasts with the power of the Beast that seeks to conquer through force. Chapter nineteen provides the denouement to the scene set up at the end of chapter sixteen. The allies of the Dragon gather “for battle on the great day of God the Almighty” (16:16). However, in chapter nineteen, when this “battle” is described, it turns out not to be a battle at all.
The rider on the white horse comes forth for battle, the imagery clearly identifying this rider as Jesus. Crucially, prior to any engagement with the enemy, we read of the rider being “clothed in a robe dipped in blood” (19:13). The rider simply captures the Beast and false prophets and dispatches them to the lake of fire without an actual battle. The “robe dipped in blood” alludes to Jesus’ victory through suffering love, the only victory needed.
The two kinds of conquering in Revelation correspond with the two cities, the two objects of loyalty vying for adherents. The Beast’s power for conquering, characteristic of Babylon, rests on violence and domination, top-down power that enforces its will be crushing its enemies. The Lamb’s power for conquering, characteristic of New Jerusalem, rests on persevering love, power through mercy, and adherence to peace that seeks to convert at least its human enemies. According to Revelation twenty-one, the very “kings of the earth” who join the Beast in facing the white rider at the great “battle” end up bringing their glory into New Jerusalem, clearly as transformed people.
So, we see four main characteristics of “apocalyptic power” in the book of Revelation.
First, the book’s self-designation as a “revelation of Jesus Christ” points directly to Jesus’ persevering, suffering, transforming love as the truly creative power of the universe—in direct contrast with the type of power characteristic of the Beast (the Roman Empire and all other human empires).
This contrast stands at the heart of Revelation’s agenda. John challenges his readers with their need to clarify their loyalties. The “revelation” of Jesus Christ also includes at its core a corresponding revelation of the nature of the Empire to which Christians found themselves severely tempted to give loyalty.
John’s visions seek to disillusion. Simply the ability to see through the clear eyes of faith in the Lamb and his way undercuts the hegemony of the Beast among John’s readers. The power to perceive the character of the true God and the contrast between that character and the true nature of the Beast stands at the heart of biblical apocalyptic.
Second, in Revelation when read as a whole, the central product of God’s “apocalyptic intervention” in human history turns out not to be the catastrophic end to human history nor the massive and violent punishment of God’s (and John’s) human enemies. The core product of the intervention of God as portrayed in Revelation is the creation of a counter-cultural community as an alternative to Rome. This community finds expression in this world, not in an “after-world.”
Third, the purpose of apocalyptic power as John presents it is to provide sustenance for the on-going, long haul commitment of the communities to follow the Lamb. John writes to encourage the actual communities he describes in chapters two and three. And his encouragement is not simply, “hang on tight for a short time, the end of history will come soon.” Rather, John encourages his readers to establish ways of being that will sustain them over time.
Fourth, the nature of the resistance John advocates follows from the contrast that he makes throughout between the two empires. This style of resistance becomes essential in order for it to be sustainable and genuinely transformative in a world so shaped by domination. The nature of the resistance is revealed in the contrast between the two kinds of “conquering” in Revelation.
John does not intend his readers to be passive observers of God’s transformative work in creation. In fact, he portrays God’s expectations for them to be quite rigorous and demanding. Follow the Lamb wherever he goes. Live in the Lamb’s empire right now; his type of power is authentic. Turn from the trust in idols and idolatrous ways of exercising power. And in doing so, you will actually play a crucial role in God’s work of transforming the nations.
If we read Revelation as the capstone of the entire Bible, we may expect its portrayal of apocalyptic power to share much with what comes earlier in the Bible. Revelation echoes themes present throughout the Bible.
Romans. At two key points in Romans, Paul writes of the saving work of God being revealed to human beings.
In Paul’s opening summary, he writes: “I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith” (1:16-17). Then as the culmination of the argument he develops in chapters one through three, Paul writes, “Now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness [or ‘justice’] of God through faith in Jesus Christ [or ‘through the faith of Jesus Christ’] for all who believe” (3:21-22).
Paul says that the work of God to bring salvation to the world has been revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. God’s apocalyptic power is the power to bring salvation—through the “revelation of Jesus Christ.”
At the heart of Paul’s gospel, he reiterates the Bible’s call to trust in God’s mercy in contrast to trusting in empires, coercive power, and human cultures that vie with the true God for human loyalty. For Paul, a central fruit of the revelation of the justice of God in Jesus is the formation of a new kind of community bringing together Jew with Gentile. God’s “apocalyptic” action brings forth not an end to history but the establishment of a community of faith charged with embodying a transformed way of life to countering the way of life characteristic of mighty empires such as Rome.
The character of life in the community to which Paul writes will be shaped by suffering love. Paul presents God as Christians’ model for loving enemies (5:1-11) and not retaliating (12:14-21). He summarizes the law itself as the call to love neighbors (13:8-10).
Jesus. The accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching in the gospels support the account of apocalyptic power we have found in John and Paul. Jesus, like the others, saw himself living in a time of crisis. However, his response to the time of crisis was not to seek to escape history but to seek to change it—over the long haul.
The community Jesus established reflected an intent to work for change in the world, over time, not an expectation that the world will end. As John Howard Yoder summarizes, this community included: a visible structured fellowship, a sober decision guaranteeing that the costs of commitment to the fellowship have been consciously accepted, and a clearly defined life-style distinct from that of the crowd.” Jesus’ community sought to exist as a counter-cultural alternative within history to the politics of empire.
Jesus apocalyptic message made all the points we have seen in Revelation and Romans. God’s “empire” stands in stark contrast with domination-based empires such as Rome. Followers of Jesus must choose one or the other to give their loyalty to. God’s “empire” has revealed in new ways the nature of God’s own rule—and established communities meant to live according to that rule and live as “lights on a hill” witnessing to God’s rule. For members of these communities, life lived in coherence with the rule of God takes the shape of persevering love, nonviolence, and restorative justice.
Second Isaiah. The central catastrophe of the Old Testament story of the children of Israel came when the Babylonian empire conquered the southern Hebrew kingdom of Judah. Babylon destroyed Judah’s Temple, exiled the ruling class, and ended Judah as a nation-state. In the rubble of the destruction a new vision found expression in the prophecies of Isaiah 40–55 (“Second Isaiah”). In the message of Second Isaiah, we also find a sharp contrast drawn between power politics and the politics of God. The bearer of salvific power here is the “suffering servant.” Many commentators identify the servant as Israel itself, though perhaps Israel as understood as a remnant.
This community, regardless of its precise identity historically, brings light to the world through the vocation of power as persevering love, not power as domination. As such, it points to an entirely different kind of politics from imperial Babylon. Second Isaiah speaks of God’s intervention in the Babylonian conquest. The prophets understood Babylon’s actions to be linked with judgment upon unfaithful Israel. However, more importantly, Israel was judged for itself being Babylon-like and its fate was primarily not due to God valuing Babylon’s imperial practices so much as due to the dynamic of “imitating empire and suffering the fate of human empires.”
The fruit of God’s intervention that Second Isaiah emphasizes is the emergence and sustenance of the servant community. And this community will carry on the saving work of God in the world. The saving work of the servant community does not share in Babylon’s conquering coercive tactics but conquers through suffering love and God’s vindication of that love.
Exodus. Going back to ancient Israel’s founding event, we see from the start some of the dynamics I have identified as reflecting apocalyptic power. As with other contexts that brought forth divine revelations (“apocalypses”), in the time of exodus the community of faith found itself in crisis. The story tells of God’s direct intervention. And the intervention’s central fruit was the formation and sustenance of a faith community.
The story of the exodus does contain literal violence against human beings. However, the exodus events do not tell of human beings on God’s side using violence. The basic responsibility of the Hebrews was to be still and see the victory of God.
Perhaps even more importantly for our reflections on power, the exodus story directly repudiates the imperial coercive power of Egypt. The Hebrew community does not include militarism in any sense. The effect of the liberating work of God was to establish a counter-cultural community that witnesses against the ways of empire.
If we extend the exodus story to include the gift of Torah (beginning with the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20), we see more clearly both the counter-cultural nature of the new community intended by God to resist Empire and the intent of God’s intervention being focused on providing for the long-term sustenance of the community. Torah, as presented in Exodus through Deuteronomy, self-consciously counters Egypt’s politics. Torah values care for the vulnerable members of the community and places at the center the message of God’s justice mediated through the weaponless prophet, not the human emperor or general.
If we allow the exodus to help us understand biblical apocalyptic, we can see a strong sense of continuity in how power is understood from the beginning of the biblical community to the final exhortations given to it. God’s intervention in the exodus, amidst the overt displays of force and the violence visited upon Pharaoh and his supporters, has at its central purpose the establishing and sustenance of a counter-cultural witness intended to witness nonviolently and through preserving love to the genuine will of God for all humanity.
The politics of apocalyptic power is a politics of witness against brute force and human self-aggrandizement. It is a politics centered on the prophetic word, not the might and coercive power of the emperor and his general. It is a politics that seeks the healing of creation, not the exploitation of people and things.
1. In using the qualifier “biblical” with “apocalyptic,” I mean to imply that Christian theology and ethics should seek first to interpret “apocalyptic” thought canonically. So I will read Revelation in the context of the New Testament and the entire Christian Bible, not in the context of extra-canonical “apocalyptic” writings.
2. My understanding of Revelation has been shaped by writings of scholars affirming the “peaceable Revelation” perspective. Some of the more helpful writings from this perspective include:
G. B Caird, The Revelation of St. John the Divine (New York: Harper and Row, 1966); Vernard Eller, The Most Revealing Book of the Bible: Making Sense Out of Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1974); Jacques Ellul, Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation (New York: Seabury, 1977); Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, The Book of Revelation: Justice and Judgment (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985); Eugene Boring, Revelation (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1988); Richard Bauckham, The Climax of Prophecy: Studies in the Book of Revelation (Edinburgh, UK: T. & T. Clark, 1993); Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1993); Christopher Rowland, “The Book of Revelation,” in Leander Keck, ed., The New Interpreter’s Bible (Nashville: Abingdon, 1998), 12:501-743; Harry Maier, Apocalypse Recalled: The Book of Revelation After Christendom (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002); Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther, Unveiling Empire: Revelation, Then and Now (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2003); David Barr, ed., Reading the Book of Revelation (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2003); Mark Bredin, Jesus, Revolutionary of Peace: A Nonviolent Christ in the Book of Revelation (London: Paternaster, 2003); Loren Johns, The Lamb Christology in the Book of Revelation (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr, 2003); Barbara Rossing, The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2004); Ronald Farmer, Revelation (Kansas City, MO: Chalice Press, 2005); and Brian Blount, Can I Get a Witness? Reading Revelation Through African-American Culture (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2005).
3. See Howard-Brook and Gwyther, Unveiling Empire, 87-119.
4. Howard-Brook and Gwyther, Unveiling Empire, 102.
5. For a detailed case for this reading of the Lamb metaphor, see Loren L. Johns, The Lamb Christology of the Apocalypse of John: An Investigation into Its Origin and Rhetorical Force (Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck, 2004).
6. See a perceptive application of John’s disillusioning visions to our present day in Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Resistance and Discernment in a World of Domination (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), chapter five.
7. John Howard Yoder, The Politics of Jesus, second edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994), 39.
8. Millard C. Lind, Yahweh is a Warrior: The Theology of Warfare in Ancient Israel (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1980) and Monotheism, Power, Justice: Collected Old Testament Essays (Elkhart, IN: Institute of Mennonite Studies, 1990), especially “The Concept of Political Power in Ancient Israel,” 135-152..