The book of Revelation provides a closing summary of the Bible’s salvation story in the form of an extended vision that interprets Jesus’ message of salvation. One way to read Revelation is as an attempt to apply the salvation story the gospels tell (in the context of the overall biblical salvation story) to life in the Roman Empire near the close of the first century. John presents two salvation stories locked in mortal conflict—the story of the Lamb and the story of the Beast.
At the heart of each story is an account of power. What does it take to conquer? What does it take to achieve victory? Revelation challenges the empire’s notions of salvation, power, and victory and presents the Bible’s notions as a viable alternative. At it sees the Dragon as the power behind the empire, Revelation teaches that “what most distinguishes the rule of God from that of the [Dragon] is that the latter uses coercive force.”
John compares and contrasts these two salvation stories in order to inspire peaceable living. He challenges his readers, who identify themselves as believers in Jesus, to follow the same path that Jesus took. Jesus confronted the Powers with his practice of embodied restorative justice and his faithful witness. The Powers responded with extreme violence and executed him on the cross. Then God vindicated Jesus’ witness by raising him from the dead and unveiling him as the true ruler of the earth. John presents this “pattern of Jesus” as the norm for those who would take his name: faithful witness, resurrection, and ruling through self-giving love.
In face of the relentless assault of the Powers—spiritually, ideologically, and physically—on people throughout the empire, John presents this revelation of the actual nature of the human environment. He draws directly on and reiterates the biblical story of salvation we have examined in this book.
The basic content of Revelation’s revelation concerning salvation is the same as we have seen to be characteristic of the rest of the Bible: God creates and sustains the universe in love, due to choices to turn from God and trust in idols, human hearts have been damaged, the message of salvation proclaims simply turn back from the idols and trust in God’s love. In my summary of how Revelation presents salvation, I will touch on six texts.
The first words of the book tell us this is a “revelation of Jesus Christ.” That is, this book is a revelation about Jesus that gives a vision of how his salvation transforms the world. Chapter one asserts that Jesus is very, very powerful. He is powerful in relation to the nations (“the ruler of the kings of the earth,” “on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail”) and in relation to the churches (“he holds the keys to death and Hades”).
What is the nature of Jesus’ power? The book challenges us to accept Jesus’ Lamb-power as the fundamental power of history. Lambs don’t kill and dominate and instill fear and justify violence in the name of a “realistic” need for peace and order nor do they violently punish their enemies. “Lamb theology is the whole message of Revelation. Evil is defeated not by overwhelming force or violence but by the Lamb’s suffering love on the cross. The victim becomes the victor.”
This is how John describes Jesus: “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5). These three descriptors present in a nutshell what we could call the pattern of Jesus: Faithful living, to the point of suffering due to his resistance to the domination system, even to the point of death. Vindication by God, the witness sustained even through death, resurrection, sustained hope, true power. And ruler of the kings of the earth. What does “ruler of the kings of the earth mean?” The book will explain—and the outcome of this rule will be salvation even for these enemies of God (“The kings of the earth will bring their glory into [the New Jerusalem] . . . [and] people will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations,” 21:24-26).
In Revelation, the visions John sees reveal Lamb-power as the true power of the universe. Even in the face of a sword wielding empire. The exalted Lamb is exalted as Lamb, not as warrior. The exalted Lamb is exalted because of his faithful witness to persevering compassion and love. “Fundamental to Revelation’s whole understanding of the way in which Christ establishes God’s kingdom on earth is the conviction that in his death and resurrection Christ has already won his decisive victory over evil.”
The threefold pattern of Jesus sets the stage for the revelation of Jesus Christ that makes up Revelation. This Jesus loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood (1:5b). All three components of this sentence must be held together: Jesus’ love, Jesus acts of providing for freedom, and the role of Jesus’ “blood” in this freeing.
The love stems from the love of the Creator for the creation, even in its brokenness and alienation. The underlying motivation for God that fuels “what must soon take place” (1:1) is God’s love. We have only a few markers in the course of Revelation to remind us of this fundamental reality, so it is important to take note of John’s beginning emphasis here.
The work of love that Jesus embodies has as its goal the setting free of enslaved creation, especially enslaved humanity. The visions that follow will drive home in powerful ways the identity of the agents and the consequences of this enslavement. John emphasizes at the start that everything Jesus does as God’s agent in our world stems from love and has as its purpose the freeing of humanity from all that enslaves. The “sins” John alludes to here are likely a general reality more than any particular acts. The fundamental sin in the Bible is idolatry, trusting in things rather than in God. The consequence of idolatry is enslavement, wherein the idol seduces and controls the idolater.
Freedom from the control of sin, from enslavement to the Powers that seduce humanity into idolatry, comes through Jesus “blood.” As with elsewhere in the Bible, the term “blood” is used here without explanation of what precisely is meant by the term. In the context of the rest of the Bible and of what is to come in Revelation, we may hypothesize for now that by “blood” John has in mind the overall life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. That is, it is not Jesus’ literal blood that frees but what the blood symbolizes—Jesus’ life of freedom from the Powers and idolatry and sin, lived to the end in faithfulness even in face of violence and the most devastating kind of execution. God’s vindication in making Jesus “first born of the dead” reveals to the cosmos that God’s love survives the worst bloodletting of which the Powers are capable.
Jesus provides a “freedom from”: freedom from the Powers and from idolatry and from sin, all the aspects of life that lead to enslavement. However, Jesus also provides “freedom for.” Jesus frees those who follow him so that they might be “a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father” (1:6). We must remember that “kingdom” is a political term, spoken of here in the present tense. The freedom-for is a freedom here and now to live as communities that embody the way of the Lamb and display to the cosmos that Jesus indeed is the ruler of the kings of the earth.
What follow in Revelation will be visions directly concerned with a struggle between two present and demanding kingdoms. The Roman Empire is a “kingdom,” too. When John speaks of Jesus “making us a kingdom” he means to say that followers of Jesus have chosen to enter his kingdom and, in a genuine sense, to exit Rome’s kingdom. The book will conclude with a clear juxtaposition of this choice, one of the fundamental choices that energizes John’s visions. Babylon or New Jerusalem? These are the two rival kingdoms. John’s burden is to present those in the churches with the realities and demands of God’s kingdom. Those who are the “priests” who serve Jesus’ God do so through their embodied love and their resistance to the loyalty demanded by the kingdom that directly competes with God’s.
The initial vision in Revelation (1:10–3:22) focuses on Jesus’ presence among and messages to “the seven churches that are in Asia” (1:4). These messages challenge the churches to commitment to Jesus’ way of “conquering” in face of the empire’s threats. Then, John sees an “open door in heaven” followed by a theophany (chapter four) that portrays the “one on the throne” as the recipient of widespread worship.
At the beginning of chapter five, John sees a “scroll” in the right hand of the one on the throne. That this scroll is in God’s “right hand” emphasizes its weightiness as does the fact that it is so securely bound with seven seals. Though we are not told directly, we surely are to understand the contents of this scroll to be the fulfillment of God’s work with creation, a message of salvation. But the message cannot simply be given. Someone must be found to open the scroll and bring the message to its fruition. To John’s bitter frustration, given that he longed for salvation, “no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or look into it” (5:3). We can only speculate as to why this is the case. One idea, though, is that everyone misunderstands the way the scroll is to be opened. Everyone looked for the power of domination as the power to bring history to its conclusion.
No one is found and John weeps bitterly (5:4). Then he is told to weep no more because one has indeed been found. He hears that a king, great and powerful enough to break open the scroll has made an appearance—at least this is the sense one gets from what John hears. It is “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David,” a great conqueror who can open the scroll.
This is all for dramatic effect. John of course already knows the identity of this victor. However, the drama is important. Many did expect that the deliverer would indeed be an all-powerful king of the type of King David of old. This would be the hoped for Messiah longed after for many generations, the one who would “redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21) with great force. This expectation is what John hears.
What John actually sees makes for a dramatic re-emphasis on the claim from chapter one that Jesus, the faithful witness, actually has become ruler of the kings of the earth (1:5): “Then I saw between the throne and the living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered . . . [who] went and took the scroll from the right hand of the one…on the throne” (5:6-7). What John sees, though, is not actually different from what he hears. It is just that the mighty king who has the power to open the scroll and bring the story of humanity to its healing end is the gentle, compassionate, consistently loving, self-sacrificial Jesus who conquers by persevering on the path of love, all the way to the cross and beyond.
We must notice, though, just how profound the exaltation of this slain and raised Lamb is here. This vision may present the highest christology in the entire New Testament. The Lamb stands right next to the throne. He is not part of worshiping creation but actually himself becomes the object of worship. What follows in chapter five in relation to the Lamb almost exactly echoes what John reports in chapter four in relation to the one on the throne.
So, we have a profound affirmation of the godness of the Lamb. This affirmation precisely follows from the self-emptying of the Lamb (see Philippians 2). It is as the one whose persevering love leads to a cross that the Lamb embodies God as nothing else does. Hence, the most important revelation here is not that Jesus is divine. The most important revelation is what this affirmation tells us about God.
The one on the throne is seen most clearly and best understood in terms of the persevering love of the Lamb. This vision thus becomes a radical and transformative theophany. We see God here, indeed, God on the cross, God as bringing victory and transformation and healing to creation through self-giving love. “Christ’s sacrificial death belongs to the way God rules the world. The symbol of the Lamb is no less a divine symbol that the symbol of ‘the One who sits on the throne’.”
The worship service then culminates in an ever-widening set of affirmations: “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” (5:12). The worship ripples wider and wider, including praise from every tribe and nation, then from angels beyond count, and then—amazingly—from “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea” (5:13).
John drives home with every bit of rhetorical force he can muster that Jesus shows us the character of God and the means of victory. And this revelation of what God is like and how God works gains the strongest imaginable endorsement from creation itself. So, the slain and raised Lamb not only reveals God’s character, he reveals the character of God’s created universe by the response he generates from “every creature” when he takes the scroll.
The Lamb’s victory is praised as having already been won. As will be reemphasized in creative ways in the visions to follow, in the live, death, and resurrection of Jesus salvation has come. There will be no other battle. No other victory—other than actions and commitments that reinforce the victory already won, and that conquer in precisely the same way (faithful witness to the very end confirmed by God’s nonviolent vindication through resurrection).
The most fundamental expression of God’s power is the self-giving love of the Lamb. This love cannot be conquered even by the empire’s crucifixion. Whatever we can imagine as the empire’s greatest expression of might can not defeat this vulnerable Lamb. To realize that this is God’s power transforms how we understand the One on the throne and the “Revelation of Jesus Christ” that are the focus of the book of Revelation.
John portrays God’s power in chapter five. The power of the Lamb, the power of God, is not to be understood as the power of unlimited coercion, as brute strength, as the power to impose God’s will no matter what. That is not how the scroll is opened. That is not how salvation is won. God’s power is not unlimited coercion but the power of self-giving, persevering love. The gospel tells us that the way of victory for the messiah came through the Jesus’ self-sacrifice, not through matching sword for sword.
The Lamb is worthy to take the scroll, the Lamb has true power, because it was willing to be slain for the sake of God’s truth. This act was not an isolated happening, something the Lamb did so that none of his followers would have to. Rather, this act of the Lamb was something his followers are to imitate. In chapters two and three, Jesus called upon the people in the seven churches to be conquerors. Jesus called upon the people in the seven churches to follow his way even if that led to their death. God vindicated Jesus’ faithfulness through resurrection. So too will God vindicate the faithfulness of all who follow Jesus’ way.
Immediately after the vision of the Lamb as triumphant, John sees a series of great plagues that are triggered by the breaking of the seals to the giant scroll. The source and meaning of these plagues are complicated. In chapter twelve’s vision, John seems to indicate that the Dragon (Satan) making war on the earth and the followers of the Lamb (12:17) stands behind the plagues—though they also in some sense serve God’s purposes. With chapter thirteen, though, the role of the Dragon and his Beast becomes clear.
Revelation thirteen and fourteen
The vision begins with a Beast rising out of the sea, the sea being the domain of the Dragon who is named as Satan (12:9) and is the power behind the Beast. The actions of the Beast are an expression of the war the Dragon wages against followers of the Lamb (12:17). The Beast, with its “diadems” and “throne” (13:1-2) and worldwide authority (13:7), symbolizes empire. This vision presents the salvation story John opposes in its most vivid and harsh light. That the Beast gains his power from the Dragon echoes Jesus’ temptation narrative where Satan offers Jesus leadership of the empire.
John has more in mind than simply the Roman Empire, though. Verse three refers to the Beast suffering what seems to be a mortal wound and then being healed. When any particular empire receives a mortal would (that is, is defeated), that is not the end of the Beast. It simply continues on in a succeeding empire or kingdom or other political power structure. The wound that killed one empire heals, and the Beast continues in power in another empire. The Bible shows Babylon as succeeded by Assyria, followed in turn by Persia, then Greece, and then Rome—all manifestations of the Beast. The Beast is an image for all authoritarian human political institutions that separate people from God.
Rome’s demand that people render to Caesar that which belongs to God compelled many people of faith to resist Rome to the death. John believed that when it made this demand the empire became demonic. He vigorously represented this in 13:4: “They worshiped the Dragon, for he had given his authority to the Beast, saying, ‘Who is like the Beast, and who can fight against it?’”
“Let anyone who has an ear listen,” verse nine asserts. In the messages to the churches, these words accompanied the promise to “conquerors,” those who follow what Jesus says to them. By putting these words here, John underscores that what follows has crucial importance for his audience. In the face of the awful power of the Beast what must they do? How might they contribute to the fulfillment of God’s promises of salvation for the world? “If you are to be taken captive, into captivity you go; if you kill with the sword, with the sword you must be killed. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (13:10). Just as Jesus stuck to the path of love even in the face of violence, so too must his followers. Like their savior, they are called to win a victory not based on brute, coercive power. The revolutionary’s sword is still a sword.
With this challenge for patient endurance, John calls his readers to refuse to fight back with violence against the attacks of the Beast, since only in this way can the Beast be halted in its tracks. Evil is self-propagating. To repay violence with violence only perpetuates violence and makes no contribution to peace and healing. Genuine salvation is linked with consistency with the pattern of Jesus: faithful witness, resurrection, and vindication.
A second beast (13:11), called the False Prophet, portrays the ideological dimension of the Beast’s kingdom. The Dragon and the Beast deceive. Their power comes from what people give them with trust in them. The False Prophet “deceives the inhabitants of the earth, telling them to make an image for the Beast that had been wounded by the sword and yet lived; and it was allowed to give breath to the image of the Beast so that the image of the Beast could even speak and cause those who would not worship the image of the Beast to be killed” (13:14-15).
The “image of the Beast” likely refers to emperor worship in that specific context. More generally, it refers to whatever concrete thing facilitates idolatry of human kingdoms. John’s vision demands that followers of Jesus refuse to offer the Beast the worship it demands and refuse to resist the Beast with violence as those who fought the Romans during the Jewish War in Jerusalem in 66-70 CE had done. This creates a challenging picture, then. Salvation is linked with likely martyrdom and being crushed by the might of the empire.
The vision does not end here, though. The first five verses of chapter fourteen stand in important contrast to chapter thirteen and make a powerful contribution to Revelation’s version of the Bible’s salvation story. Chapter thirteen shows the true nature of emperor worship and all other similar demands for ultimate loyalty made by imperial states and the need for people of faith to say no even if it means suffering and tribulation. Then 14:1-5 shows the Lamb’s victory and it shows that those who follow him share that victory. The conquering the Beast does (13:7) was, in a sense, illusory. The faithful ones’ actual fate will be to join the crucified and vindicated Lamb that sings on Mt. Zion.
Revelation, at its heart, teaches that the Lamb of God has defeated the Powers of evil. This act leads to the eventual healing of creation, healing that includes the transformation of the nations and their kings. This affirmation arose in the midst of a practical awareness of the power of evil in the world. This vision of transformation tells John’s readers that they fight against the Beast when they, as 14:4 says, “follow the Lamb wherever he goes.” Chapter five tells us that the Lamb who was slain stands as the master of history. The Lamb who defeated evil through the way of love reveals the path to salvation.
According to these visions for the followers of the Lamb there are two parts to reality, both true at the same time. One, the Beast makes war upon them. For John himself, being warred upon meant exile to the island of Patmos (1:9), for Jesus it meant crucifixion. For others too, it meant martyrdom. But the other part of reality, the deeper one, is that of redemption, of oneness with God, of hope and empowerment in the midst of tribulations and persecutions and evil.
Rome’s call for emperor worship lies behind these visions. Shortly before Jesus was born, a movement toward emperor worship arose within the Roman Empire. It began more as worship of the empire than of the specific emperor due to the gratitude that people felt for the social order and stability afforded by the Pax Romana (“peace of Rome”). But because the emperor symbolized the empire and was more tangible, this worship soon focused on him.
The emperors at first only tolerated this religious devotion as they resisted being treated as divine. But soon the social value of emperor-religion became obvious. With the empire’s many nationalities, and its elite soon realized a common religion of emperor worship could be a helpful way to ensure unity within the empire. People could practice their own faith as well as long as they would confess the emperor’s lordship. Believers such as John assumed they could not go along with this. Jesus was lord, not Caesar. For followers of Jesus to refuse to render worship to Caesar led the empire to see them as threats to the stability of the social order. The empire did not see them as heretics who did not believe the correct doctrine. Rather, the empire saw them as rebels who refused loyalty due to the emperor. Revelation thirteen portrays the empire’s response.
John’s vision could not end with chapter thirteen’s seemingly hopeless picture. Despite the overwhelming power and authority that the Beast possesses, John sees in chapter fourteen the holder of the ultimate power of the universe and the guarantor of authentic salvation. He sees the Lamb surrounded by his people. The 144,000, chapter seven shows us, is not a small, limited number but symbolizes the entire people of God, “a great multitude that no one could count” (7:9). The Lamb’s salvation story, John insists, stands; it repudiates the Beast’s salvation story.
Revelation contains several visions that portray terrible plagues befalling the earth. They culminate in the total destruction shown in chapter sixteen. However, the world does not actually end. More visions follow that focus on the destruction of the powers behind the evil that plagues the earth in chapters seventeen and eighteen. With the Powers of evil crushed, the scene is set for a great celebration in the beginning of chapter nineteen, the “marriage supper of the Lamb.”
John, though, has yet another major judgment scene to portray, one that is a kind of sequel to the plague visions. After the sixth bowl plague, demonic spirits from the mouth of the Dragon, the Beast, and the False Prophet “go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty” (16:14). Before John sees this “battle,” though, we get the judgments of chapters seventeen and eighteen that focus on the destruction of the “Great Whore,” Babylon—the empire that embodies the ways of the Dragon (its spills “the blood of prophets and of saints, and of all who have been slaughtered on earth,” 18:24). This judgment vision, though, reveals a difference between the Powers of evil and the humans they deceived (“all nations were deceived by your sorcery,” 18:23).
With the Powers judged in chapters seventeen and eighteen, the multitude can gather for celebration—19:1-2: “Salvation and glory and power to our God; for his judgments are true and just; he has judged the Great Whore who corrupted the earth with her fornication, and he has avenged on her the blood of her servants.”
The character of this “avenging” work of God becomes the focus starting in 19:11. We should link the vision presented here both with the earlier vision from chapter five of the Lamb who carries the meaning of history and with the outcome of the book, the vision of the New Jerusalem. Remarkably, the “kings of the earth” present to God the “glory of the nations.”
After the celebration in 19:1-10, “heaven is opened” for a new vision. Jesus returns to the scene. It appears he will act as God’s warrior-judge, upon first glance the expected actions of the “Lion of the Tribe of Judah” of 5:5; the conquering judge at long last. However, as we read on we realize that the war is over before it even starts, due to Jesus’ faithful witness that led to his crucifixion. What we see in 19:11-21 is not a battle but simply the carrying out of God’s final victory. The Beast and False Prophet are thrown into the lake of fire. “All the rest” (those who were deceived) are judged by the word of Christ (the sword that comes out of his mouth, 19:21).
The white horse that Jesus rides (19:11) symbolizes victory. He has conquered through his death and resurrection. He comes to this apparent battle with the forces of the evil already the victor. This “battle” was foreseen in 16:14. The outcome of the “battle” in no way is in question.
The rider is called “faithful and true;” that is, “the faithful and true witness” of 1:5. He remained faithful and true to God even when it meant a martyr’s death and thereby gained the white horse. He wins the “war” because he remains faithful to the way of the cross in the face of temptations to take up the sword to further his ends. The rider approaches the scene “clothed in a robe dipped in blood” (19:13) already shed beforethe battle begins. Jesus can already ride the white horse because the battle is over due to his faithful witness. The “armies of heaven” (19:14), likely the “saints” wearing their bridal linen (19:7-8), carry no weapons. They too are already victorious. The only weapon mentioned is the sword that comes out of Jesus’ mouth—his word, the gospel (cf. Heb 4:12; Eph 6:17) that brings the enemies of God to their knees.
The Beast and the kings and armies are all ready for battle (19:19). They are deceived to think one will occur. However, the battle is long past. We see that when Jesus simply captures the Beast and False Prophet and throws them into the fiery lake (19:20) without a battle. Jesus, in his death and resurrection, won the only battle necessary to defeat evil.
John presents a “rebirth of images.” He uses battle imagery to present a picture of Jesus winning the ultimate battle with the Powers of evil, not through a bloodbath in the future but in the past historical event of his witness and its vindication in resurrection. This “battle” scene from chapter nineteen underscores how the Lamb conquers. He contrasts with the Beast who seeks to conquer through force.
The vision of 19:11-21 stands in between John’s contrasting portrayals of the fate of the two great cities of Revelation. At the beginning of chapter seventeen, we read, “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 who is seated on many waters, with whom the kings of the earth have committed fornication, and with the wine of whose fornication the inhabitants of the earth have become drunk.’ So he carried me away in the spirit into the wilderness” (17:1-3). Then, in chapter twenty-one we read, “then one of the seven angels who had the seven bowls full of the last seven plagues came and said to me, ‘Come, I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.’ And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain” (21:9-10).
In between these twin visions, 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 two kinds of power for 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 by crushing its enemies. The Lamb’s power for conquering, characteristic of New Jerusalem, rests on resistance through love and adherence to peace that seeks to convert 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 as transformed people.
Revelation twenty-one and twenty-two
The Bible’s vision of wholeness is presented the most clearly at the very end, the last two chapters of Revelation. The angel tells John that God “will wipe every tear from [our] eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more” (21:4). Then John sees a vision of the city of healing and wholeness, the New Jerusalem.
The angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light (22:1-5).
God had promised to Abraham and Sarah that their descendents would be a light to the nations and bring healing and salvation. This promise finds fulfillment in the New Jerusalem. The nations are healed. People see God face to face. The Lord God becomes their light. The two foundation stones of hope—God’s past acts of salvation and God’s promise—merge. The true victory of God, the actual battle with and defeat of the Powers of evil are past events in Revelation. Jesus has conquered death. Revelation’s hope is based on what Jesus already did.
The new heaven and earth are cleansed of evil. They are heaven and earth as good, the way they were created to be. The holy city (21:2), the beautiful bride, stands in stark contrast to Babylon. A vision of this city empowers John’s readers to perceive the allurements of Babylon for what they are and resist. At 21:5-8, for the first time since chapter four, John hears the voice of God: “I am making everything new!” God’s work is not reserved for a new creation, after the old has been discarded. Rather it is the process of re-creating by which the old becomes new.
In one sense, the holy city in 21:9-14 is future, but in another sense it exists in the present and, like Babylon does, invites people to enter it. This contrast highlights the present choice of cities. “The New Jerusalem vision is meant to be God’s vision by which we live our lives right now, as followers of the Lamb and of Lamb power in our world.”
The New Jerusalem is actually constructed of people. The people of God are the bride. They are the walls and foundations of the city and they inhabit the city. The twelve tribes of Israel make up the walls (21:12) and the twelve apostles make up the foundation (21:14). Together they symbolize the entire people of God. The city represents a people. The earthly temple and the earthly Jerusalem have been replaced by people living in the direct presence of God. Everything that the temple of old represented at its best is now transferred to the life of the city. God’s glory fills everything. Merely to be in the city is to be with God. God Almighty is seen in the Lamb (21:23). Jesus defines who God is. The light of the world becomes also the light by which the nations walk (21:24). They will no longer be deceived.
In John’s earlier visions, the nations are deceived by Satan and are subservient to the Beast and “the kings of the earth.” But the deceiver is defeated and removed. Now the song of 15:4 is fulfilled: “All nations shall come and worship you.” The nations that once offered their riches to the city of the Beast will yield them instead to the city of God and the Lamb (21:24, 26). This implies a sanctification of the entire order of the created world and its products. Nothing from the old order that has value in the sight of God is kept from the new. Verse twenty-seven reminds us that the city is truly holy and pure. Those who enter it do not do so because God compromises, but because they themselves have been transformed and made whole.
In 22:2, the fruit of the tree of life symbolizes abundant life. The river of living water also powerfully expresses the idea of bountiful life. The “healing of the nations” from the “leaves of the tree of life” likely refers to the hurts caused by the plagues. The nations are healed from the awful effects of the dragon and his cohorts. If Babylon is characterized by terror and deception and injustice, the New Jerusalem is the exact opposite. It is the place where the nations walk in harmony and justice and peace, where the light of the glory of God guides everyone’s path.
A key element in John’s vision is that the New Jerusalem, in all its brilliance and beauty, is not something people visit or take residence in. Rather, it is something people become. The New Testament often speaks of “the people of God” as the bride of Christ. Here, in 21:9-11, we are told that John “saw the bride, the wife of the Lamb,” which was the holy city, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, possessing the glory of God.
New Jerusalem is people, the countless multitudes that John sees singing praises to the Lamb throughout the book. But along with these renewed people will be all of creation, purified and set free from the bondage of decay and death; not worshiped instead of God, but cared for and enjoyed as part of God’s creation.
Salvation according to Revelation
The book of Revelation presents, we could say, two contrasting and competing salvation stories. The one, which John caricatures with polemical force, proclaimed Caesar as “savior,” “lord,” and the master of history. The second, which John embraces, proclaimed Jesus as savior, lord, and master of history. Through his plague visions, judgment visions, and worship visions, John conveys the two directions these respective stories take their adherents.
Culminating the Bible’s emphasis from the story of creation on, John juxtaposes the kingdom of God with the empires and nations of the world. These stand as the two basic social options in history. When the book concludes with heaven and earth joining together in the New Jerusalem, John emphasizes (as has the biblical salvation story from the start) that choices of loyalty between God’s kingdom and the nations were always both religious and political choices.
Revelation appropriately concludes the biblical account because John has brought to the surface and sharply portrayed the basic issues that have concerned about all the biblical writers. Central to God’s response to the brokenness that severed the original harmony that characterized the good creation has been to create communities that would know God’s peace and bless all the families of the earth (Gen 12:1-3). These communities received liberating empowerment and guidance from God—exodus and Torah—as merciful expressions of God’s will for wholeness.
From the very start, though, the ways of the nations with their idolatry, injustice, and power politics have troubled the covenant people and disrupted their attempts to embody God’s shalom. The great empires always stand as threats, both in how they often seek to crush the possibility of the independent, shalom-oriented social witness God seeks from God’s people and in how they provide a competing account of the core values that shape human communities. For Torah, the core values center on mutuality, respect, care for the vulnerable, and inclusion of all stakeholders into processes of governance and discernment. For the empires, the core values center on the aggrandizement of power and wealth in the hands of the elite, exploitation of the vulnerable, and disempowerment of the many.
In John’s presentation, the veneer of respectability and claim for divine support for the way of empire is torn away. John reveals with his visions the “beastly” nature of his particular empire (Rome) that, as so many others had before, sought to shape the covenant people in ways contrary to the heart of Torah. Rome offered many rewards for those who would willingly accept its demands and many severe punishments for those who did not. John’s intent is to lay bare the actual source of Rome’s power—not God at all but the Dragon (Satan) himself.
John’s agenda, though, is not to cultivate resentment and rebellion. Rome is but a passing phenomenon that does not actually have the power to determine people’s ultimate fate. Rather, John has a positive agenda that in many ways echoes the positive agenda of the original revelation of Torah, an agenda reiterated by the Old Testament prophets, Jesus, and Paul.
The embodiment of this positive agenda, of course, is Jesus. When John labels his book a “revelation of Jesus Christ,” he has in mind the Jesus who healed. Revelation, like the gospels and epistles (and the law and prophets), is about embodiment of God’s healing strategy. What does John want to inspire his readers to do? “Follow the Lamb wherever he goes.” Like the Lamb, the followers play a key role in revealing the true character of the Master of the Universe. The God of Revelation is the God of Jesus and the God of Abraham and Moses. That is, the God of Revelation is a God who seeks to heal and effects healing through persevering love.
The message of salvation John offers is simple, in line with the simple message I have traced from throughout the Bible: Turn from the idols and trust in God’s love. John presents the Beast in unflattering terms in order to facilitate such a turn in his readers. Though they may profess faith in Jesus, many in John’s audience (as reflected in the critique of several of the churches in the messages from Jesus in chapters two and three) found mixing profession of faith in Jesus with accommodation to the empire to be acceptable. For John, such a mix actually ends up being a repudiation of trust in Jesus and his way.
Though John portrays the consequences of accommodation with the Beast to have potentially terrible consequences (though note that even the kings of the earth—the Beast’s strongest human allies—are welcomed into the New Jerusalem in the end), the path toward healing was not complicated. Simply turn, follow the Lamb, and trust in his revelation of the character of the true God.
Revelation does have language of judgment, of vengeance, of death and blood. Jesus’ crucifixion is presented as the fulcrum point of human history. However, the book does not point toward this death as a sacrifice to God that makes salvation possible. To the contrary, as implied in the title of the book itself, Jesus’ crucifixion gains its significance as a “revelation” that shows all with eyes to see that God’s love stands above the Beast’s domination practices.
The initial statement about Jesus at the book’s beginning makes clear how he shows the world God’s character. This book is a “revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1), who is worthy of praise and discipleship because of his “faithful witness” (i.e., his life of persevering love that led the empire to execute him) that results in his resurrection (“the firstborn of the dead”), and status as “ruler of the kings of the earth” (1:5). He “freed us from our sins by his blood” (i.e., his faithful witness to the death empowers us to turn away from the sin of idolatry) and “made us a kingdom” (a community that stands over against the “kingdoms” of the nations and empires) to serve God (1:6). As a consequence of Jesus’ witness “every eye will see him” and “all the tribes of the earth will wail” (1:7). The salvation comes as a gift of God. Ultimately this “wailing” from “all the tribes of the earth” is best understood as a wail of recognition that leads to salvation.
“You [the Lamb] ransomed for God saints from every tribe and language and people and nation; you have made them to be a kingdom and priests serving our God” (5:10). “A great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes . . . cried out . . . ‘Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb” (7:9). “Lord, who will not fear and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you” (15:4). “The city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it” (21:23-24).
The second half of Revelation gives us two different visions contrasting the two salvation stories. In 13:1–14:5, the Beast and Lamb provide the counter stories. In 17:1–22:5, it is two cities who provide the contrast—Babylon and the New Jerusalem. Both visions emphasize the centrality of Jesus’ faithful witness, the call for people of faith to follow his way, and the ultimate impotence of the Beast/Babylon/Dragon story to provide life. This latter story evokes terrible fear, brings death to prophets, and makes human beings into commodities. But it does not bring life and it is bound to self-destruct.
John means his account of the Beast in chapter thirteen to be read in relation to the empire’s best attributes. He says, in effect, that the Pax Romana, attractive as it may be as a source of peace and comfort for those who embrace its story, actually is empowered by the Dragon and in claiming its divine status is uttering the worst blasphemies. Its peace rests on systemic violence. It seems irresistible, in part because of the effective ideological work of its propagandists (the “False Prophet”).
For those who recognize the empire for what it is (perhaps we could infer here respect from John for the Jewish revolutionaries of the 66-70 CE resistance in Judea), saying no is crucial. However, in contrast to the revolutionaries, it must not be centered on the sword. Violence does not offer salvation; it only adds to the Beast’s dynamic of destructiveness.
The other story stands in the midst of the peace-but-really-systemic-violent chaos of the empire story. The empire story is not the true story. The Lamb stands with the multitudes who “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4). These 144,000, we learn from chapter seven, are the countless multitudes from all nations who worship the true God and not the Beast. They are freed for this worship when they see God for who God truly is due to the witness of the Lamb.
The visions of Babylon in chapters seventeen and eighteen show that it goes down in a conflagration triggered by the great harlot, who symbolizes the empire and becomes “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the witnesses to Jesus” (17:6). We notice, in relation to the judgment, that the destruction visited upon the spiritual Powers of evil (Beast, Dragon, and False Prophet) results in the nations and the kings of the earth being healed.
The victory that sends the Powers down, we have reiterated in chapter nineteen, is the victory of Jesus’ faithful witness and God’s vindication. The judgment of the Powers itself serves the healing that Jesus devoted his life to: as a result of his embodied testimony that conquers the Powers, healing comes to all creation, including God’s worst human enemies.
Chapter nineteen echoes chapter five. Jesus wins by creative love. As a consequence, those with faith worship him (chapter five) and the Powers are crushed (chapter nineteen). Those who are in between—the human allies of the Powers who have been deceived by the Beast and False Prophet—meet with a complicated fate. They are “killed” by the “sword” that comes from the rider’s mouth (19:21), but in such a way that leads to their presence in the New Jerusalem. “Jesus makes war not with a sword of battle but ‘by the sword of his mouth.’ The word is Jesus’ only weapon—this is a reversal as unexpected as the substitution of a lamb for a lion. These reversals undercut violence by emphasizing Jesus’ testimony and the word of God.”
The New Jerusalem welcomes all who want to be there. The door is never closed, and it is a place of healing. “Nothing unclean” will be found there, implying that the presence of the kings of the earth links with their transformation. They do not enter as allies of the Beast but as people who have found healing and see now that life is to found in the Lamb.
 Howard-Brook and Gwyther, Unveiling, 157-94.
 Barr, “Doing,” 98.
 On the “Lamb” metaphor, see Johns, Lamb.
 Rossing, Rapture, 111.
 Bauckham, Theology, 73.
 Gorman, Reading, 76.
 Gorman, Reading, 96-97.
 Kraybill, Apocalypse, 98.
 Bauckham, Climax, 180-81.
 Swartley, Covenant, 340-41.
 Maier, Apocalypse, 185-86.
 Bauckham, Theology, 64.
 Bauckham, Theology, 37.
 Howard-Brook and Gwyther, Unveiling, 157-58.
 Gorman, Reading. 135-36.
 Howard-Brook and Gwyther, Unveiling, 113.
 Howard-Brook and Gwyther, Unveiling, 117.
 Bauckham, Theology, 76-77.
 Gorman, Reading, 154-55.
 Maier, Apocalypse, 188.
 Blount, Can I Get, 82.
 Bauckham, Theology, 106.
 Maier, Apocalyse, 37. See also Rossing, Choice.
 Rossing, Rapture, 142.
 Howard-Brook and Gwyther, Unveiling, 185-90.
 Bauckham, Climax, 315-16.
 Bredin, Ecology, 165-80.
 Howard-Brook and Gwyther, Unveiling, 227-28.
 Maier, Apocalypse, 96.
 Rossing, Rapture, 121.
Pingback: Salvation project completed (or, is it, abandoned?) « Peace Theology