Revelation is About Jesus, not vengeance
[Originally published in The Mennonite, September 2, 2008]
by Ted Grimsrud
In a nutshell, this is what I think matters when we look at the book of Revelation. What are we looking for when we look at Revelation? And what does Revelation tell us about the way to see this “little round planet” and this “big universe”?
Revelation has the reputation of being about whistles and bells, great drama, visions of the violent shattering of the old and forceful entry of the new.
Many people welcome these visions, reading Revelation as predicting a bloody, future period of tribulation that could begin at any time—and that is to be welcomed as part of God’s work to bring ultimate salvation (and condemnation) to the human race. Wars and rumors of wars and the likelihood of a nuclear holocaust are all foretold in Revelation, say these people, and let’s praise God when they happen. This is the message of Hal Lindsey’s The Late, Great Planet Earth (the largest selling of all books published in the United States during the 1970s). This is the message of Tim LaHaye’s popular Left Behind books.
Other people also read Revelation as being about violence, catastrophe and the shattering end of life as we know it, but they are appalled by these visions. Jonathan Kirsch, a writer for the Los Angeles Times, wrote a bestselling “exposé” of Revelation, A History of the End of the World. He characterizes the core message of Revelation like this: “The moral calculus of Revelation—the demonization of one’s enemies, the sanctification of revenge taking and the notion that history must end in catastrophe—can be detected in some of the worst atrocities and excesses of every age, including our own.”
Both Lindsey and Kirsch read Revelation looking for a message of violence, severe judgment and condemnation for God’s human enemies. I suggest we read Revelation looking for something else.
Looking for guidance: We should read Revelation looking for guidance as we live amid wars and rumors of war. However, we need to take seriously Revelation’s place in the Bible.
The message of the Bible finds its sharpest and clearest expression in these brief words of Jesus: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and love your neighbor as yourself.”
If we read Revelation for confirmation of Jesus’ words, we will be able to make the best sense of the “words of this prophecy” (Revelation 1:3).
While we need to pay attention to the crazy and at times overwhelming visions in Revelation, we must not let them distract us from the core message of the book. We are given important clues to this message in the opening verse. This book is “the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1).
Whatever else we think we see here, it all needs to be oriented back to this original point. How do these visions help reveal Jesus Christ?
We could look for visions of an overwhelmingly violent Christ coming in the clouds to dominate his enemies and reward his friends—with the sense that the best motivation for becoming his friend is fear of eternal torture in the fires of hell. This is what fundamentalists like Hal Lindsey and skeptics like Jonathan Kirsch look for.
However, if we are looking for something else, something that helps us love our neighbor and have confidence that such love goes with the grain of the universe and is worth suffering for if need be, what will we find?
Revelation 1:5 is our first description of Jesus: “the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead and the ruler of the kings of the earth,” who “freed us by” his self-sacrifice. The term “faithful witness” could also be translated “faithful martyr.” The Greek word is “matrys” and has the clear sense of Jesus’ faithful life embodying love of neighbor that led to his execution by the Romans. The image here is of the suffering servant, the faithful witness to God’s love who came to care for others.
Jesus won the victory that matters, the one affirmed right at the start and, as it turns out throughout the book, by his “blood.” Jesus’ willingness to remain faithful to the ways of love and compassion even to the point of execution enables his triumph.
Self-sacrificial love: Revelation portrays two distinct kinds of victory or conquering. Jesus conquers through self-sacrificial love. The Roman Empire conquers through domination.
Writers such as Hal Lindsey and Jonathan Kirsch, opposed as they may be in their own politics and religion, stand together in misinterpreting the meaning of the visions of catastrophe in Revelation. Ultimately, these visions expose the evil of the Beast, the Roman Empire, all empires (including the American Empire). The wars and rumors of war reflect the opposite of God’s will.
Two later visions of Jesus confirm that Revelation reveals him as the suffering servant, not the conquering avenger.
In chapter five, John weeps because he does not believe that anyone will be found who can open the scroll that contains the message of the consummation of history. An angel tells him not to weep, someone has been found. This is the key moment of the entire book. Who is worthy to open the scroll? John hears, mighty, conquering king. But what does he see (again, the key element of sight, of revelation)? He sees a Lamb, standing (resurrected) as if slaughtered (executed by crucifixion). This Lamb, who conquered through persevering love, can open the scroll and therefore is worthy to be praised by all creation.
A second climactic moment comes in chapter 19. For some time the book anticipates a great final battle, the “battle of Armageddon.” All the world’s armies gather for this battle. In the book-of-Revelation-as-violent reading, this is the key moment in the entire book. However, in the Revelation-as-revelation-of-Jesus reading, we see something different when we get to the “battle scene.” The savior rides forth on a white horse, as if to battle. But he is armed only with a sword coming out of his mouth—that is, the word proclaiming the good news of God’s love. Before he gets to the battle, he is clothed in “a robe dipped in blood” (19:13)—that is, his blood has already been shed.
The act that frees us and wins the battle is Jesus’ faithfulness to the point of execution, vindicated by God’s raising him from the dead. This has already happened. The battle of Armageddon is simply a matter of the powers of evil being gathered up and thrown into the lake of fire. And—a reference always missed by the Revelation-as-violent interpreters—the kings of the earth (the human enemies of God throughout the book) do not end up in the lake of fire but in the New Jerusalem (21:24). Jesus’ victory—won by his love—leads not to punishment of human enemies but their healing.
The book of Revelation has big hopes. It portrays the fall of Babylon—a dream of the end of systems of domination, of nations pouring their wealth (and their children) down the rat hole of militarism, of economics that impoverish the billions and destroy the earth for the sake of further enriching the already rich. In hoping for the fall of Babylon, Revelation also hopes for the healing of Babylon’s human apologists. The generals and capitalists and presidents who do the Beast’s bidding are themselves in bondage to evil powers. When those powers are destroyed, their human servants are freed. The kings of the earth find healing.
This message of hope is crucial in understanding the revelation of Jesus Christ that John reports in this book. But what truly matters for us is to recognize the means to these goals—the goals are achieved through the self-sacrificial love of the Lamb. The conquering that achieves authentic victory throughout Revelation happens through the power of consistent love.
Throughout the book, John’s readers are exhorted in only one direction. They are not to fight the Beast’s violence with violence of their own. They are not to seek to conquer the Beast using his methods. They have a simple but extraordinarily challenging calling: Follow the Lamb wherever he goes. As he conquers with self-sacrificial love, so too do his followers.