[From Ted Grimsrud, Triumph of the Lamb. Herald Press, 1987; reprint edition: Wipf and Stock, 1998.]
The Meaning of Revelation for Today
If possible, reread the whole book in one setting. Even better, listen to it being read aloud.
(1) Does the book make sense to you know?
(2) What are the key themes?
(3) How does Revelation speak to you?
(4) How does Revelation relate to the church in the modern world?
(5) What are your biggest unanswered questions?
(6) What in this study guide has struck you in a new and helpful way? What have you found with which you cannot agree?
(7) Do you feel hopeful, unhopeful, or hopelessly confused in rereading Revelation? Why?
Questions for Thought and Discussion
(with some attempted answers)
(1) Why has Jesus not yet returned? Why does history go on?
This is not a big issue if we remember the one day equals 1000 years in God’s sight. What seems like a long time to us does not necessarily seem so to God.
Yet history does continue. Why keep it going at all? One could say that God does not want anyone to perish, so God keeps history going in order to give them a chance. But people keep being born and the net effect would seem to be more negative than positive.
What is at stake in this in-between time prior to Jesus’ second coming is people’s loyalty. History goes on in order to test that loyalty.
Revelation suggests that history continues so that God’s purposes will be fulfilled. These purposes cannot be fulfilled otherwise. We cannot understand all the reasons for this. They are tied to the mysteries of evil and of human free will. These purposes entail the ultimate self-destruction of evil. History continues so that evil can run its course and in the end be totally destroyed.
The affirmation of Revelation, if we can believe it, is that God is in control of history and that God is working things out in God’s own way. There are glimpses of the idea that Jesus cannot come back before evil runs its course. Otherwise, God would be stifling human free will and would actually become an agent of coercion and ultimately of evil.
(2) What is the purpose of God’s judgment? Is it primarily to condemn God’s enemies? or to purify God’s friends?
My views of God are based on more than the book of Revelation. I believe that God loves God’s enemies and is always seeking to make them friends by offering them forgiveness and the transforming power of God’s Spirit.
The threats of judgment, sometimes communicated as promises of judgment but always conditional, are part of this process. God threatens judgment in order for people to turn back to God. The judgment itself is intended to be purifying. In effect, God wants to weed out the “tares” from our “wheat.” If we do not have any wheat, there will be nothing left when the tares are gone. The practical result, then, is condemnation. But it is self-condemnation. In our rejection of God, we may experience God’s purifying “weeding” as a destructive thing—even though God’s intention is purification and not condemnation.
God’s real enemies, whom God does not love, are the spiritual forces of evil: the dragon, the beast, the false prophet, and the harlot. God must destroy them so that God’s human “enemies”—whom God loves—can possibly escape destruction. The ultimate purpose of the visions of judgment is to show that God is working to destroy these forces and that—hard as it may be to believe it—God will complete this work. Christians are thus exhorted to cultivate their wheat so that when Babylon falls they are not caught in its collapse.
(3) How is evil conquered? What role do Christians have to play?
Evil is conquered by a nonretaliatory love that refuses to get caught up in the cycle of evil begetting evil. Rather this love lets God’s wrath take its course. The ultimate effect of God’s wrath is self-destruction of evil. The central and decisive act of love in this process was Jesus’ death. Jesus did not fight back, but rather trusted totally in God’s power. The forces of evil battered Jesus, but his resurrection in God’s power insured their destruction. In Revelation, evil is never resisted in kind, but only by the power of a love that does not bow the knee.
Christians play no role in the decisive defeat of evil. That was done by Jesus on their behalf. For all its battle imagery, Revelation communicates clearly that the real battle is past history.
Nonetheless, a secondary battle rages on, limited to earth. It does not take place in the ultimate reality of heaven. This battle is important, because of the fate of human beings is decided by which side they are on—the winning side or the losing side.
The way to remain on the winning side, and the way to influence others to join that side, is to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes.” In other words, the responsibility of Christians in the battle with evil is to always remain faithful to Jesus’ way of non-retaliatory love—even in the face of calls to take up arms against godless communism and other threats. In the struggle against evil, a good end never justifies an evil means. The true end is achieved by God alone and never by human attempts to take things into one’s own hands and achieve by coercion and violence what God achieves only by love.
(4) Are the values of antichrist present in our world today? If so, what might they be? How are we tempted to assimilate and accept them?
The values of the antichrist are especially insidious and include the desire for power. Instead of trusting wholly on God for one’s security, the spirit of antichrist will attempt to provide for self-security. Instead of looking to God for direction in life, the spirit of antichrist will look elsewhere for direction and for decision-making criteria. In contrast, Christ’s values center around the will to serve and around total trust in God.
In this broad understanding, the values of antichrist have existed ever since Adam and Eve. And they will continue to exist until the final judgment. Our crucial temptations are generally in day-to-day kinds of things.
Decisions about these things determine what kind of people we really are becoming. And what kind of people we really are is what determines how we make the more crucial decisions if and when the need arises.
Those who are motivated by the will to power misplace their trust and seek security outside of God. They learn different values. If we reach that point, then our battle with antichrist is lost regardless of how literally Revelation’s visions are fulfilled or how religious our veneer.
The pastoral concern of John is that day by day—the “little” things—we follow the lamb wherever he goes. We can miss this is we think of the prophecies of Revelation as primarily predicting future events which we do not have to worry about right now.
(5) Is there anything in the teaching of Revelation that might encourage us to try to make the world better?
The tone of Revelation seems to imply that this world is hopelessly evil and is passing away. Our main concern should be one of holding fast and not joining with that evil—remaining strong of heart even when persecuted. Not much is made, it would appear, of trying to make the world better.
To a large degree this characterization is accurate. To some extent it reflects the simple reality of the church’s situation. That was what they needed to hear. The possibility of transforming their culture was simply unthinkable at that time.
Our question is, Is this a statement for all times and places? Is this the simple reality for all Christians and to think otherwise is to compromise with the beast?
I am not sure. I believe Christians should try to make the world better. Elements in Revelation support this belief:
(a) The readers are repeatedly exhorted to do good works. Even evangelism narrowly defined can be seen as an attempt to make the world better.
(b) The picture of the New Jerusalem shows the kings of the earth bringing their splendor into it (21:24) and the nations bringing their glory and honor into it (21:26). Thus, the good that is accomplished now is carried into the New Jerusalem. In other words, what we do—what we accomplish—really matters.
(c) The transition from the old age into the new age is more gradual than the apocalyptic imagery in Revelation might suggest. The stark and explosive imagery appears more for its dramatic effect than for predicting what will happen. So our faithfulness may help to bring about the kingdom as part of the leavening process.
(6) Are the plagues pictured in Revelation inevitable? Is there nothing we can do to stop them? Or are they pictures of what might happen, implying that we should work to keep them from happening?
To a large degree, the plagues are pictures of what has happened, is happening, and will continue to happen as long as evil exists. They have to happen in order for evil to be destroyed, but they will cease when there is no need for them.
Evil’s only power is deception. When we see it for what it is and reject it, its power in effect ceases to exist. Less evil means fewer plagues. Our goal should be to facilitate the coming of the kingdom. When the kingdom comes, the plagues will cease. New plagues will not appear.
The plagues are not absolutely inevitable because evil is not absolutely inevitable. We should work and pray that the plagues might not come, believing that they need not come and that one day they will be over—once and for all.
Our faithfulness does not depend on our success in stopping the plagues. But we should with our whole being try to stop them, trusting in God’s promise that God will reward us for doing so by transforming us into people who are totally at home in a place without plagues, where every tear is wiped away (21:4).
(7) Does Revelation tell us anything that provides meaning to human suffering?
The author and the immediate recipients of this book were facing suffering in the present—with the anticipation of more to come. The meaning of suffering is thus a central one in this book.
John, however, is not concerned with suffering as such. Rather, he is concerned about a specific kind of suffering—suffering that is chosen, suffering that people take on themselves as a result of their choice faithfully to witness to Jesus. The churches at Laodicea and Sardis were doing fine without suffering. Suffering for them was not inevitable. But they were also being unfaithful. They were not really following Jesus.
For those who would follow Jesus, suffering is likely. The readers of Revelation risked social ostracism and persecution if they did not take part in the pagan festivals and emperor worship. If they stood for justice in an unjust society, the powers that be would see them as a threat and seek to remove that thereat.
This suffering had meaning because it meant people were following the way Jesus took in conquering evil. To suffer because of faithfulness is to be part of God’s work in bringing in the kingdom. The only hope for the world is that Jesus and is followers stand free from the power of evil. But doing so almost always entails suffering.
Revelation also seems to imply that arbitrary kinds of suffering are not really arbitrary. Satan is at work in the world trying his best to mar God’s creation and to turn people against God. All suffering is therefore a test. Will we turn to God as our only Lord or will we follow the advice of Job’s wife and “curse God, and die” (Job 2:9)?
(8) How does Jesus rule? To what does the “iron scepter” (2:27; 12:5; 19:15) refer?
Revelation does not say much about how Jesus rules. It presents the paradoxical picture of a conquering Lamb. But the Gospels say a lot about his style of leadership: servanthood. The imagery of conquering symbolizes his decisive spiritual victory over evil through the power of love.
The Jesus of the Gospels and the Lamb are one and the same. Jesus does not change his character between his first and second comings. The crucial and decisive battle happened at the cross, not Armageddon. If the way of love was the way that battle was won, it would seem silly to think that any later, secondary battle might be won differently.
The Lamb concept should determine our understanding of things like the iron scepter—not vice versa. The iron scepter symbol comes from Psalm 2 and is obviously a reference to the Messiah’s rule. It is a statement of the Messiah’s sovereign rule. But the actual character of that sovereignty—when the Messiah Jesus did come—turned out to be much different than that of the warrior king envisioned in Psalm 2.
Many first-century Jews missed their Messiah because they misunderstood the character of his rule. It seems that many twentieth-century Christians are making the same mistake. Many still think Jesus will return as a literal warrior king. This christological mistake is then made into an ethical mistake when they shape their present-day values around that concept (e.g., in support of militarism and captial punishment).
(9) How can we be “sealed” by God (7:1-3)? From what does this protect us?
Being “sealed” by God and having God’s name written on one’s forehead (14:1) are both picturesque ways of expressing identification with God—being filled with God’s Spirit.
What is at stake in the world between Christ’s comings is people’s loyalties. People must choose between living in the harlot’s city—Babylon—or the bride’s city, the New Jerusalem. Those who choose the New Jerusalem will be challenged in that choice. They will be threatened with suffering—even death—by the dragon and his cohorts.
John’s point in speaking of “sealing” is to emphasize that the dragon cannot separate people of faith from God’s love. John refers to the first death and the second death. The former is physical death and the latter is final separation from God at the judgment day. Those who are “sealed” by God are guaranteed protection from the second death, even if they prematurely go through the first death.
Those that trust in god are promised that God will neither leave them nor forsake them (Ps. 37:28). That is what the sealing indicates. As long as people trust in God, God will stay with them and bring them through death to resurrection. Because of this, John can call upon God’s people to hold on to their faith.
(10) How can one reconcile in Revelation the appearance of both mass punishment (chapters 6; 8–9; 16) and mass salvation (5:9ff.; 7:9ff.; 21:24ff.)?
The idea of “prophetic paradox” may help us here. A number of the Old Testament prophets used this method. God will save the people and God will destroy the people. At times it seems almost as if both are stated in the same breath.
The purpose of the prophet was not to provide information for its own sake. The purpose was to move people to repentance and obedience. The prophets did not always concern themselves with inner consistency and clear logic. When saying, “this will happen,” they might actually mean “this will happen unless…”
The positive promises of the prophets (including John in Revelation) of mass salvation are statements of faith. They believed that God would bring about the New Jerusalem and that countless people would be part of it.
The negative statements about mass punishment are not promises of what will happen to those outside the community of faith—not to unbelievers. The book of Revelation was written to the community of faith—not to unbelievers. Its warnings are therefore warnings to us: This is where we might end up if we continue on our rebellious path. The Bible is not given to speculation about the fate of those outside the community of faith. Its concern is to ball those within that community to faithfulness.
Mass punishment is used in Revelation as a technique—to exhort people in the church to examine themselves. It was not meant as a factual statement about those outside the church.
Perhaps John was using a carrot-and-stick approach: You should be faithful so you can be part of the singing multitude and not part of the cursing multitude.
(11) What is the significance of the numerous mentions of good works (2:2,19; 3:1,8,15; 14:13; 19:8; 20:12)? How does this related to Paul’s teaching of justification by faith alone?
Both Paul and John integrally connected faith and works. Entry into the book of life is not based on our relative merit, but on our acceptance of God’s grace by faith. But if we do not obey Christ—if we do not do good works—we have no basis for claiming to be in the book of life. We cannot know God’s grace apart from knowing it as a power that motivates and empowers us to do good works.
John implies in his vision of the white throne judgment in 20:11-15 that a person cannot truly do good works without faith. (This is also implied in Jesus’ teaching and to some degree in Paul’s.) So if a person is judged to have done good works, it can be assumed that he or she had faith—even if that faith was not clearly articulated in totally orthodox terms. Conversely, if a person espouses the best doctrines but is not judged to have done good works, it can be assumed that that person did not really have true faith.
The letters to the churches show John’s pastoral concerns. The rest of the book addresses those concerns. The churches are exhorted very strongly regarding the importance of thir works. It follows, therefore, that the rest of the book was intended to lead its readers to good works, not to idle speculation about the meaning of 666, the location of Armageddon, or the specific person who is or will be the antichrist.
(12) How can it be that Satan, the beast and their cohorts are so powerful and yet, in the end, are so easily defeated?
Satan is so easily defeated in the end because his real defeat came when Christ was crucified and rose from the dead (i.e., when the Lamb was found worthy to take the scroll in chapter 5). Therefore, all Christ has to do in 19:20 and 20:10 is capture the dragon, beast, and false prophet and throw them into the lake of fire. The real battle is long past by that time.
How, if he was defeated so decisively on the cross, could the devil and his cohorts appear to be so powerful? God apparently allows Satan to exert power even after the decisive defeat. But Satan has no power that God does not allow him to exercise and can do nothing that will not ultimately serve God’s purposes.
Revelation has no answer for why God would want to do this. Somehow, for God to eradicate evil totally, Satan needs to continue to operate for a while longer. Evil exists outside of us—as a force personified as the devil—but it also exists in the human heart.
The evil outside of us exploits the evil inside, but to God it is of much less consequence. God can end it with a flick of the wrist. God is after the evil inside. God wants to destroy it without destroying us. Somehow, in a way we cannot fully understand, ultimately to take care of the evil inside the human heart, God must allow Satan some time to operate. John’s final word, however, is that Satan’s time is short. We may not always see it, but God is doing away with evil and the New Jerusalem is coming.