Ted Grimsrud

11. Salvation Through Revelation

One way to read Revelation is 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 attempts to challenge the Empire’s notions of salvation, power, and victory and to present the Bible’s notions as a viable alternative.

John compares and contrasts these two salvation stories for an ethical purpose.  He challenges his readers, who identify themselves as believers in Jesus, to follow the same path that Jesus took.  Jesus challenged the Powers with his practice of embodied peaceableness, with his faithful witness.

The Powers responded with extreme violence—executing 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, if need be, physically—on all people in the Empire, John presents this revelation of the actual nature of the human environment.  This revelation 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 damage, the message of salvation proclaims simply turn back from the idols and trust in God’s love.

Power to save in Revelation

The fifth chapter of the book of Revelation begins with a poignant image.  The seer, John of Patmos, had written in chapter four of 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 how he regards it (begging for it to be opened), we get the impression that what he’s describing should be understood as, in some sense, history fulfilled, the completion of the project initiated in Genesis one.  The scroll, we could speculate, contains the completed salvation story.

The poignancy enters when John sees the scroll but is overcome with grief at the thought that it may not be opened.  Who can open the scroll?  Who can bring salvation?  “No one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it” (5:3).

This account provides us with a metaphor that speaks to much of human history.  How can history be redeemed?  How can the human project be redirected from brokenness and alienation toward healing and wholeness?

Human beings tend to think of power in terms of the ability to control events, to force others to do one’s will even if that means coercing them.  Political power is often linked with the ability to use violence.  We are most likely to answer the question of how to open the scroll by asserting the need to “force” it open, to open it by our firepower.

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 (or Messiah) 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, who brings salvation to all of creation.

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 materials known as “apocalyptic.”  If we focus primarily on the biblical language of “revelation” (from the Greek apokalypsis) and consider this language in the context of the rest of the Christian 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, the power that will “open the scroll,” the power that brings salvation, is the power of self-giving love and communal faithfulness, not the power of weapons of war and coercive force, not the power of violence and the taking of life.

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 and salvation in biblical apocalyptic.  The power of biblical apocalyptic is the power of Jesus Christ.  Jesus shows how salvation comes to humanity.

Most writing on biblical apocalyptic in general, and Revelation more particularly, does not generally self-consciously link “apocalyptic” with “Jesus Christ.”  We don’t allow “Jesus Christ” to shape our understanding of “apocalyptic.”  General approaches to apocalyptic may be divided into three general categories, each of which by and large shares with the others the same general sense of what “apocalyptic” conveys.

To think apocalyptically, it is said, is to think in terms of visions of fire from the sky that judge and destroy.  The “apocalypse” is a time of catastrophe, of dramatic change, the end of what is and the birth of something drastically new and different.  Salvation is seen to come through destruction and judgmental violence.  Apocalyptic power, it is implied, is 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.

The three general responses to apocalyptic (all understanding apocalyptic in roughly the same way) include (1) avoidance, (2) historical literalism, and (3) futuristic literalism.

1. Avoidance. Many Christians have simply ignored apocalyptic.  It has been seen as the literature of extremists.  Many in the early church disputed the acceptance of Revelation into the canon.  Much later, John Calvin wrote commentaries on the entire Bible, except Revelation.  Martin Luther also considered Revelation to be sub-Christian and taught its avoidance.[1]

More recently, many “mainstream” Christians continue to avoid Revelation, willingly giving over the discussion of this part of the Bible to the prophecy purveyors.  Revelation is seen as a book of fear and violent judgment that reinforces many of the most uncivilized tendencies of religious people—and thus is best avoided as much as possible.

2. Historical literalism. Beginning with the publication of Albert Schweitzer’s The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), the consensus view for most biblical scholars in the historical-critical vein has been to accept the apocalypse-as-world-catastrophe-and-divine-judgment view as being what Jesus, Revelation, and the rest of earliest Christianity literally expected to come very soon.[2] However, obviously they were wrong.  Since Schweitzer, the question of how thoroughly this apocalyptic view should be applied to early Christian thought has been vigorously debated.  But the general sense that biblical apocalyptic concerns violent power and judgment has not been contested.

Neither the avoiders nor the historical literalists themselves see biblical apocalyptic as valid for our present.  The third approach shares a similar sense of what biblical apocalyptic’s perspective was, but this view affirms that this perspective does remain valid for today.

3. Future literalism. Throughout the past 2,000 years, at least a few Christians have understood the visions of biblical apocalyptic writings, especially Revelation, to be predictive of actual future events in human history.  This future prophetic view found powerful expression in the writings of a 19th-century British reformer named John Darby who formulated a thorough system of interpretation called “dispensationalism” that has shaped countless perspectives on biblical apocalyptic.

In recent years, dispensational theology has gained wide currency through the phenomenally popular science fiction novels in the Left Behind series.  These books articulate a theology of future judgment, of apocalypse as destruction and recreation, vengeance and reward.  Though presented as fiction, in many ways the vision of these books is believed to be an articulation of the kinds of things that their writers (and many of their millions of readers) expect literally to happen.

In all these three approaches, then, the assumption that biblical apocalyptic understands power and salvation in terms of force, coercion, and top-down impositions of God’s will has remained unchallenged.  However, turning back to Revelation chapter five, we may ask whether these assumptions about power and salvation accurately capture the sense of what John the Seer believes allows the Lamb to open the scroll.  And, in light of our long history of wars and rumors of wars, we must ask whether all our redemptive violence might not be utterly counter-productive in relation to the universal human longing for the scroll to be opened, brokenness to be healed, and wrong-doing to be dealt with in ways that bring genuine salvation.

Apocalyptic power in Revelation

The book of Revelation does indeed mean to convey a sense of crisis.  It envisions impending catastrophe, along with a polarized view of reality.  We see clearly separated forces of good and evil at war with one another and demanding absolute allegiance.  Life and death themselves are at stake in relation to 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 salvation to be established.

What characterizes “apocalyptic power” according to the book of Revelation?  Let’s look at four themes.

(1) First, the book’s self-designation as a “revelation of Jesus Christ” reminds readers of the gospel message of Jesus’ persevering, self-giving, transforming love is the truly creative power of the universe—in direct contrast with the type of power characteristic of the Roman Empire and all other human empires (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.  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—and is the key to its message concerning salvation.

The story of Jesus continually portrayed Jesus’ message as a challenge to sightSee 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 about the perennial struggle of people of the promise 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 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.  Though traditionally, Revelation has been seen as set in the context of intense persecution from the Roman Empire, more recent scholarship has tended toward understanding overt, widespread persecution not to be the likely environment.  Certainly, the book indicates spots of persecution among the seven churches, though only one direct case of martyrdom is mentioned.  However, among the seven churches, John fears the conformity of his fellow Christians to the surrounding culture much more than immediate persecution.  He fears they will trust in Caesar as savior rather than Jesus—at least in the sense of letting Caesar shape their values and priorities.

John seems mostly concerned with emphasizing choices between following the way of Jesus and seeking to fit in comfortably with the imperial Asia Minor environment.  The vehemence of John’s rhetoric and the drama of his visions challenge the imaginations of his readers to recognize the deep-seated dangers of making wrong choices more than speak to obvious and extreme cases of overt persecution.

The power of the Roman Empire stemmed from its control over cultural religious practices that reinforced the popular sense of the Empire’s status as blessed by the gods, inevitable, and all dominating.[3] 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.”[4] The empire had a strong presence in each of the seven cities mentioned in Revelation two and three; several of these cities, in particular, were 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.  The key “revelation” has to do with perceiving the importance of this 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 achievements of the Empire 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 that allowed people from all over the Empire fruitfully to share life together.

Yet, in John’s view, the order of the Empire rested on a fundamental core of violence and injustice (the word for “injustice,” adikia, may also be translated “wickedness”).  John feared that Christians’ acceptance of the Empire’s construal of reality would actually separate them from the God of Jesus causing them to miss their salvation.  He refers to the Empire’s dependence upon violence and coercion as its bases for authority.  He understood the expansion of the practices of commerce to be resting on oppression, even trafficking in the exploitation of human souls (18:13).  The Empire ultimately links with the spiritual reality of the powers of evil that in some sense held responsibility for all the murders of authentic prophets and saints throughout the years (18:24).

So, the book of Revelation presents “apocalyptic power” as directly linked with the revelation of Jesus Christ, whose way stands in direct contrast with the empire’s way.

(2) The second characteristic of saving power according to biblical apocalyptic may 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 faith communities that stand over against Rome—in this world, not in some “after-world.”

John seeks to foster a sense of crisis, presenting visions and proclamations of impending traumas and great conflicts.  Chapter 12 conveys first 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 more images of conflict, trauma, intense struggle, and suffering.

From these visions, we get Revelation’s stereotypical “apocalyptic” sense of unimaginable and world-ending catastrophes.  However, when we read more carefully, we will see something else actually going on. These visions do not mean to predict literal events.  Rather, they clarify the importance of the churches for God’s purposes in the world, and they push 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 there will in reality be no future war needed to bring salvation.  The decisive battle is past.  When the Empire murdered the Lamb and God raised him back to life, the final revelation of God’s victory was made apparent.

The picturing of crises and catastrophes serves a different kind of purpose from predicting some future, wide-open battle.  Rather, it portrays the continual struggle to perceive that the Lamb’s victory is genuine and worth shaping Christians’ lives around.  It contrasts the Lamb’s claims with the competing claims from Babylon concerning the nature of power, salvation, and the outcome of history.

These visions, this sense of crisis, intend at their heart to empower the community of the followers of the Lamb to stay together and resist the powers of Babylon.  God’s “apocalyptic” intervention to reveal the presence and nature of salvation through the Lamb’s faithfulness creates and sustains communities of resistance.  God’s apocalypse (revelation) empowers these communities for the long haul of following the Lamb wherever he goes and living as faithful witnesses who “conquer” through suffering love rather than violence and the sword.

The revelation of Jesus Christ that constitutes this book most of all reveals that those who worship the Lamb embody within their common life and faithful witness the same kind of saving 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 continues in the biblical apocalyptic tradition as seen in such biblical contexts as Paul’s writing, Jesus’ proclamation, the visions of Daniel, 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.

So, God’s apocalyptic intervention for salvation bears fruit: communities of resistance empowered to follow the Lamb wherever he goes and witness to the ultimacy of self-giving love as the fundamental rule of the universe.

(3) A third characteristic of saving “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 and witnesses to God’s saving power, bringing blessing to all the families of the earth.

We may list ways Revelation emphasizes the sustenance of the community of faith:

a. 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 John’s readers a sense that right now the churches’ “ruler” is supreme over all other rulers.  John goes on to emphasize 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 in their faith communities that they share in Jesus’ rule, exist as an alternative “kingdom” to the Roman Empire, and freely serve God.

b. Later in the first chapter, John 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).

c. The part of Revelation that most clearly underscores John’s use of apocalyptic exhortation as a means to sustain the life of the communities of faith over time (rather than prepare them for an immediate end of history) may be found in chapters two and three.  These seven messages anchor the book as a whole in the world of actual congregations facing actual challenges to faithfulness.

d. The vision of the slain Lamb standing victorious as a present reality based on past action in chapter five 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 serves to encourage the congregations that their embodied suffering love coheres completely with the true saving power of the one seated on the throne who creates, sustains and brings to fulfillment.

e. One of the more ambiguous visions in Revelation comes right 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,[5] we will be suspicious of interpretations that see the plagues as a positive action 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 saving, history-transforming work of the self-giving love of the Lamb.  The portrayal of the Lamb revealing the contents of the scroll, a revelation that 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), means to encourage the congregations with the sense that the traumas they experience and see in the course of human history do not mean that God’s transforming work is null and void.

f. Throughout the book John slips in visions of multitudes of the Lamb’s followers 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 continue to 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.

g. Chapter thirteen gives striking visions of the immense power of the Beast.  But rather than intimidating the believer, these visions must be read in the context of the entire book and the triumphant Lamb.  When read thus, their role is not so much to 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 “savior” and “benefactor.”

h. The flip side to the visions linking Rome with the Beast, the Great Harlot, and Babylon the Great, 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.

i. A final example of how Revelation seeks to sustain 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 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.  In which of these two communities will you all find your home?  Which community embodies God’s salvation?  The answer to this question is not simply a matter of intellectual assent; one’s citizenship follows from the shape of one’s entire life.

So, the apocalyptic power of Revelation serves the purpose of encouraging the faith communities—God will sustain you.

(4) The fourth characteristic of apocalyptic power may be seen in the contrast between the two ways of conquering portrayed in the book.  These two ways of conquering characterize the difference between citizens of Babylon and citizens of the New Jerusalem.  John does see 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 in the messages to the churches in chapters two and three who will receive rewards are labeled “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.  That is, the purpose of the later visions serves the exhortations to the actual communities.

What kind of power gains one a reward 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).  Actively commit yourselves to following the Lamb (3:10).  Chapter five makes the basis for conquering absolutely clear.  It is the Lamb’s persevering, self-giving love, validated by God’s bringing him back to life.

In contrast, the Dragon, Beast, and their allies “conquer” with retributive 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 even amidst their trials and 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 self-giving love, the only victory needed.

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.

John does not intend his readers to be passive observers of God’s saving work in creation.  In fact, he portrays God’s expectations of them as being 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 bringing salvation and transforming the nations.

John’s visions, in their imaginative power, reveal both that the establishment of the promised transformed heaven and transformed earth will be God’s work without obvious cause and effect in relation to human efforts and that human faithfulness nonetheless plays a crucial role in this transformation.  That is, we can not say precisely how following the Lamb will turn the Beast’s domain into the Lamb’s, but we are shown that such following is important.

The fruit of faithfulness in following the Lamb is genuine “victory.”  This victory contributes both to the destruction of the personified powers of evil (the Dragon, the Beast, the False Prophet) and, correspondingly, to the healing of the nations and the transformation of the kings of the earth.  The power of apocalyptic in Revelation is much, much bigger than simply the power to destroy or coerce.  It is actually the power to save, the power to heal.

The Lamb’s war

The controlling metaphor in Revelation is the Lamb, the one who indeed does open the scroll of Meaning and ultimately moves history toward salvation.  In this picture of salvation, even the kings of the earth find healing.  Revelation five powerfully portrays the Lamb’s power when it evokes messianic hopes for an all-powerful savior and answers those hopes with a slain and now standing Lamb, worthy to be worshiped by all creation.

Revelation portrays the Lamb’s love manifesting God’s power bringing victory and ultimate salvation.  We need to hold on to the first part of Revelation five’s vision, though, as we discern the relevance of its answer to John’s lament about how the scroll will be opened.  It is love, indeed, but it is still powerful.  The Lamb is still the “Lion of the tribe of Judah.”  The messianic, or kingly, element of his identity remains.

The way the Quaker tradition has emphasized the Lion-ness of the Lamb is through the term, “the Lamb’s War.”  This Lamb is a fighter.  This Lamb does take on the Beast and his minions.  This Lamb does conquer, does win victories, is a royal figure.  Two elements must be held together—self-giving love and genuine, conquering power.

In two key places near the end of the book, Revelation holds together the images of the Lamb and of warfare—the Lamb’s War—chapters 17 and 19.

In chapter 17, John sees one of the most striking of his visions of the Beast, here portrayed as a “great whore” who “is drunk with the blood of the saints” (17:6).  The vision goes on to allude to ten kings who “are united in yielding their power and authority to the beast; they will make war on the Lamb.”  But this war will result in their defeat.  “The Lamb will conquer them, for he is the Lord of lords and King of kings, and those with him are called and chosen and faithful” (17:14).

How does the Lamb do his conquering, how do he and “those with him” win this war?  We have already been given the answer back in chapter 12:  “Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Messiah [his king], for the accuser of our comrades has been thrown down, who accuses them day and night before God.  But they have conquered him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they did not cling to life even in the face of death” (12:10-11).

We need to keep these words in mind when we look at the second allusion to the war of the Lamb.  In chapter 19, the stage is set for the final battle.  Our images switch and we see here a great rider on a white horse.  But this is clearly the same character as the one symbolized by the Lamb.  He is “called Faithful and True” (19:11).  He “judges and makes war.”  But what kind of war?  He rides forth “clothed in a robe dipped in blood” (the “blood of the Lamb”) and “from his mouth comes a sharp sword” (the “word of testimony”).  This rider “wages war” with, as his weapons, his willingness to die and the word of his testimony.  These weapons are enough.  The forces arrayed against him are simply captured and judged—and in the end, the kings find healing as they are freed from the powers of evil that hold them in bondage.

So, this is the Lamb’s War: the followers of the Lamb banding together, forming communities of resistance, following the Lamb’s way of self-giving love and sharing in the Lamb’s word of testimony—the gospel of God’s healing mercy for all the nations, even for the kings of the earth.

This Lamb’s War constitutes the central revelation of the Christian Bible’s paradigmatic apocalypse.  The book of Revelation shows us and tells us in wild and crazy ways something very simple: trust in Jesus and follow in his ways, do this together in communities of resistance.  In doing so, you work with God the savior in healing creation, in bringing in the eschaton.

Now, I want to suggest that the revelation of the last book of the Bible is best understood in full continuity with the rest of the Bible.  We don’t have anything new here, just a new kind of packaging.  But in this new kind of packaging, I think we may be given a special urgency and sense of inspiration that can stimulate us to look back at the rest of the Bible with some new insights.  So, I suggest a reading strategy for the Bible as a whole in light of the Lamb’s war.  Understanding what is revealed in the book of Revelation may help us better understand what is being revealed in the rest of the Bible.

One way to read the Bible in light of the Lamb’s war is to recognize how times of conflict and crisis, even near extinction, are times of revelation.  What is revealed in such times?  In Revelation, we do have an almost overwhelming sense of crisis.  But we too easily let this sense of crisis obscure the actual content of Revelation’s revelation.  The revelation is not about cataclysms, the chronological end of history, raptures, Armageddon, and unprecedented future trauma.  The ultimate message is simply this: band together, hold fast to the way of Jesus, cultivate communities of faith that will sustain the way of the Lamb over time.  God creates communities of people who will know God’s transforming love and by their testimony to that love transform the world.

Revelation uses the language of warfare, conflict, victory, and conquering to characterize consistent, persevering love—even for enemies.  Conquering happens as a consequence of a quality of life that follows the same pattern that Jesus’ life followed: visible and concrete acts of mercy and rejection of power politics, leading to conflict with the powers that be, leading to suffering (even in Jesus’ case death), leading to vindication through God’s on-going commitment, resurrection and transformation in history.

Salvation according to Revelation

[More to come….]


[1] Arthur W. Wainwright, Mysterious Apocalypse: Interpreting the Book of Revelation (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993).

[2] Two contemporary examples: Bart D. Ehrman, Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999) and Dale Allison, Jesus of Nazareth: Millennium Prophet (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1998).

[3] Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther, Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1999), 87-119.

[4] Howard-Brook and Gwyther, Unveiling, 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).

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