July 2021 Feature
The last book of the Bible is commonly known in English as the “book of Revelation” or in the Greek Bible as the “Apocalyse of John”. However, the original title was its opening line “The revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1), which, in fact, more accurately describes the content that follows because, even though written by John, it was given and revealed by Jesus Christ. Revelation is filled with bizarre symbolism and enigmatic metaphors that baffle interpreters. What is this book actually about? I posit that the book of Revelation is, in nuce, about God’s divine transcendent revelation of a promised victorious future, with the purpose of calling His people to faithfulness and endurance; this is only made possible by what is done by Jesus, the slaughtered Lamb. Despite the otherworldly descriptions of the book, it has practical and ethical demands on its readers in the 21st century to live against the norms and regimes of our world.
To put this in everyday, ordinary language, imagine a situation of war between two parties. We have to make a choice between the two (there is no middle ground). One side has provided clear visions of triumphant conquest, but it has also made it clear that a commitment to its side calls for perseverance and radical loyalty despite the immense hardship and suffering its followers will experience while awaiting the promised ultimate victory. Which side would you choose? What does it mean to choose the winning side? In the following, I unpack these questions through discussing i) Jesus, the slaughtered Lamb; ii) the response of the readers; and iii) the promised future.
The Slaughtered Lamb
Jesus is uniquely and repeatedly (at least 28 times) referred to in Revelation as “the lamb that was slaughtered”. The first appearance of the slaughtered Lamb is in the heavenly throne room of 5:6. Here begins the great reversals of the kingdom of God. The anticipated “Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David” (5:5), who is expected to be the powerful militaristic messiah, turns out not to be a ferocious Lion but a slaughtered Lamb. The former is what John hears but the reality is what he sees—conquest by sacrificial death. In contrast to Rome that rules by violence, God’s kingdom is inaugurated through the crucified Messiah, who is God himself. God’s reversal is again seen in the climactic battle scene in Revelation 19. Jesus appears as the conquering rider on a white horse, “clothed in a robe dipped in blood” (19:13), but not of his enemies; the rider’s robe is dipped in blood before the battle, his own blood. There is no actual final battle as all the actions are done with the blood of the slaughtered Lamb himself. Finally, the antagonist Satan suffers his final demise after the 1000 years of his binding (20:1-6), where God not only defeats Satan but defeats death itself, the ultimate enemy of the human race (20:7-15).
Even though the defeat of Satan is promised, we are called to respond in our current, daily lives by being faithful witnesses following the Lamb. The theme of “the witness of Jesus” occurs 14 times in Revelation (1:2, 9; 12:17; 19:10; 20:4), which indicates the importance of the humanity of Jesus and the call for followers to walk the path he did. Christ’s death and victory effects faithful witness in followers who “did not cling to life even in the face of death” (12:11) and who imitate his suffering (6:9-11; 14:4-5)—the “testimony” that conquers evil is not merely a verbal message, but an embodied testimony. Knowing the faithfulness of Jesus, the slaughtered lamb, calls for us to follow him and his ways. Today, we are still called to be faithful witnesses (2:10; 17:14) despite the pressures of opposition and temptation of our world.
A Vision of the Promised Future
We are also able to persist as faithful witnesses when we appreciate the prophetic vision of eschatological salvation and ultimate vindication in the new heaven and new earth (Rev 21-22). It is out of the obliteration of Satan’s pseudo-reign that the new heaven and earth emerges, where God and the Lamb reign with his people forever (21:1-4). The new Jerusalem stands in stark contrast to the idolatrous, oppressive city of Babylon that is fallen and judged (Rev 17–18). I am of the view that when Babylon is mentioned, it is neither merely referring to first-century Rome nor some future reconfiguration of the Roman Empire in modern Europe. It applies rather to the oppressive and seductive political realities of our own day that should be resisted. In other words, in God’s promised future, all that is not of God will be eradicated; all the evil and suffering in our world will be wiped away. In this dualistic presentation, we choose between “Babylon”, the great whore (17:1-5), and God’s alternative empire, the holy city—a choice between judgment and salvation. The point is reinforced at the end of the book where there are clearly only two options: to conquer and inherit the promises (21:7) or to suffer the second death in the lake of fire (21:8).
In this very brief overview of Revelation, we have seen a consistently clear message that God will win; Christ’s sacrifice guarantees the ultimate victory over Satan and the regimes of our world. This means bringing an end to the injustice, harm, destruction and evil that still surround us today. If we decide to stand on Jesus’ side, we must be aware that we are called to be faithful witnesses to Christ while we anticipate the triumphant end. To be a faithful witness includes holding firm to our faith in Christ, living out the ways of God despite opposition, resisting evil, standing up against oppressive systems, and more. John wrote Revelation to affect and change how followers of Christ live in their present world because of the sacrifice of the slaughtered Lamb. Given all that has been revealed, including the promised new heaven and new earth, the decision to choose between the two powers still remains in the hands of the readers. You know which side is going to win, where will you place your bets?