Ted Grimsrud—January 5, 2021
I’ve been interested in the book of Revelation for a long time. Of course, others have also found Revelation interesting over the years. But not that many have perceived Revelation to be a positive resource for peaceable living in our warring world. So, I hope to make the case for the value of a peaceable approach—and that this is actually the most accurate way to read Revelation.
What we need in 2021
As a way to begin, let me reflect for a bit on our current historical moment. Is it possible that we are in a time and place where a new reading of Revelation could actually be especially helpful and empowering? I suspect so.
One of our big problems in the US right now (as always) is the destructive influence of embedded biases, fears, and idolatries that we grow up absorbing—our institutions, ideologies, structures, and the like shape us toward violence, hostility, and stereotyping and othering people. Racism, sexism, heterosexism, nationalism, consumerism, classism. The list goes on.
Revelation actually gives us insights into these dynamics and clues about how to resist and overcome them. One of the key sets of metaphors in the book involves figures such as the Dragon, the Beast, and the False Prophet. These figures lure and deceive people into giving loyalty to the Roman Empire and its central value system—parallel to how those in the US now are shaped by the American Empire. Revelation shows that these Powers (“the destroyers of the earth”) are our central enemies, not the particular people who are corrupted by the Powers. One point, then, is the need to differentiate the spiritual forces of evil from the actual human beings we confront. The problems, for us then, are best seen as, say, racism more than racists. That is, the social dynamics that enslave and divide and push to violence are what must be overcome.
If we read Revelation as a resource for helping us to find hope amidst our struggle against the forces of brokenness, especially amidst our sense of powerlessness versus those forces, we should focus on the critique of the Powers and the vision of how to “conquer” those powers. I don’t understand Revelation as a promise of a certain happy outcome to the human project. I don’t think an ancient text can credibly make such a promise. The actual message of Revelation is to illumine the path toward the harmony, joy, and wholeness captured in the book’s final vision of New Jerusalem. That is, Revelation is about process and method more than about outcome. As Gandhi taught about social ethics, the truth that matters is the truth of means (the means of satyagraha or peace) not the truth of ends. We could say, what matters is not a New Jerusalem achieved by whatever means might be necessary but rather the truthful means, which are the only possible ways actually to achieve New Jerusalem.
A message of means taking priority over ends is actually a hopeful message. Revelation is teaching us that we may find intrinsic meaning in the means of embodying the way of peace and restorative justice—the way of the Lamb. Such a path is the only way ultimately to achieve New Jerusalem, but it is also in and of itself valuable and meaningful. That sense of the intrinsic meaning of this path is what I understand the various visions of worship scattered throughout the book to mean. It is crucial to note that the worship is said to take place in the midst of the struggles and traumas of life in the present historical moment. Life is meaningful in a rich and profound way right now. To borrow Jesus’s image: The kingdom of God is present among us. This is our basis for hope.
In contrast to many common interpretations of Revelation, I believe that we actually see portrayed in the book the relative powerlessness of the Dragon and other Powers of evil. They do seem powerful, but such an appearance is simply part of their deceptiveness. When it comes down to it, in Revelation, the Dragon, Beast, and False Prophet are simply captured and thrown into the Lake of Fire. These destroyers of the earth are destroyed. Crucial for an accurate interpretation of Revelation, we must recognize the actual means used in this destruction. We get a concise statement at 12:11: The followers of the Lamb conquer the Dragon by “the blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony.” The means of victory are the pattern of Jesus—a life of self-giving love lived in resistance to the Domination System of the Dragon, a life ultimately vindicated by the One on the throne.
Revelation, thus, provides a straightforward strategy for constructive, healing, hopeful living that remains utterly relevant for life in our 21st century caldron of anxiety and turmoil. The obvious key to understanding and applying Revelation is given in the book’s very first words: “A revelation of Jesus Christ.” I read these words as a call to look back to the gospel story and to recognize that that story provides what we need to shape our vision of reality. When we do that, the various unsettling visions and images in Revelation come together as a restating of the basic message Jesus left us with: “Love God with all your heart and your neighbor as yourself.”
Reading Revelation as a peace book
We have good reasons to think of Revelation as a book about healing and salvation, not a book about punitive judgment—even if such an approach goes against many recent approaches to Revelation. I start with an expectation that Revelation is about healing and salvation and offer an outline of the book consistent with that expectation. Within this outline that highlights the framework of the book as an exhortation to follow the way of Jesus, the plague and judgment visions are secondary and serve the healing message, rather than making up the core message. In some later blog posts I will focus more directly on those troubling visions.
(1) As I have mentioned, the book’s self-identity as “the Revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1) establishes it as a kind of commentary on the story told in the gospels. The Jesus of Revelation, most often symbolized as a lamb, is the same Jesus as we find in the gospels. Thus, Revelation reinforces and expands the message of the gospels—e.g., love God and neighbor, seek healing and not retaliation, refuse to imitate the tyrannical ways of the world’s leaders. Interpreters of Revelation tend to lose sight of the anchoring of the book in Jesus and thus fail to note all the ways throughout the book that Jesus and his way are evoked. In the end, the healing ministry of Jesus extends to the nations and the kings of the earth.
(2) The key moment in Revelation comes in chapter 5 when we first encounter the Lamb, who is portrayed as the victor, the (only) one who is worthy to take the scroll from the hand of the One on the throne. Because of the Lamb’s faithful witness, he is worshiped alongside the One by all creatures in the earth (5:8-14). Crucially, this victory is based on the past faithfulness of Jesus—the story told in the gospels. Revelation does not picture history as heading toward some future drama with the outcome in doubt until some final cataclysm. The victory has been achieved, the Lamb has conquered, the Dragon has been defeated.
The vision in chapter 5 of the Lamb taking the scroll, standing as if slain, is foreshadowed early in the book. After the salutation, “the Revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1), we read of the significance of this Jesus: he is “the faithful witness (the one who lived the truthful life described in the gospels), the firstborn of the dead (the one whose faithful witness included resisting the Powers that be to the point of being executed by the Empire and being vindicated when God raised him from the dead, a resurrection that promises to be the foreshadowing of the vindication of all God’s people), and the ruler of the kings of the earth (an affirmation of the historical social and political significance of Jesus’s ministry as the “Christ” or king)” (1:5).
Then, near the end of the book we encounter another parallel vision. In chapter 19, in face of the gathering of the forces of the Dragon for the “battle of Armageddon,” Jesus rides forth on a white horse. His blood has already been shed, he heads into battle with only one weapon (a sword coming from his mouth symbolizing his word of testimony) surrounded by his army of weaponless comrades wearing white linen and riding on white horses (symbolizing their own faithful witness, 7:14; 12:11), and able simply to capture his enemies (the Beast, False Prophet, and—ultimately—the Dragon) and throw them into the Lake of Fire. All this reflects the victory already won in the ministry of Jesus as described in the gospels. Then, in the end, the Lamb sits on the throne with the One in New Jerusalem, again the object of worship.
(3) Jesus’s followers are called to conquer like he did. The practical agenda of Revelation as a whole has at its core the call for Jesus’s followers to share with him the healing ministry that will transform the world. Once the reader of Revelation is alerted to this motif, we see it throughout the book. A few key examples include the direct exhortation in chapters 2 and 3 to the readers to “conquer.” These chapters give us the seven messages from Jesus “to the seven churches that are in Asia” (1:4). These churches are at work in seven different cities. The seven messages identify important strengths and important problems in the congregations, and each message concludes with the call to “conquer,” that is, to resist the spirit of the Roman Empire and to witness faithfully to the way of Jesus.
In chapter 7 we read of a countless multitude of those “robed in white” who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (7:14). This image captures the call to follow Jesus in the path of love and resistance that caused the Empire to shed his blood in a vicious execution—leading to God’s vindication of Jesus and affirmation of his path as the model for faithful, healing human practice.
Chapters 11 and 12 recount the drama of faithful living during the time of struggle and conflict in face of the Dragon’s efforts to deceive and overturn the rule of God. Faithfulness is pictured in chapter 11 in terms of the two witnesses who in some sense represent the churches, the communities of Jesus’s people. After reading in chapters 6 through 9 of the intransigence of those who resist God, finally in chapter 11 we learn of a large group that does repent and give glory to God (11:13). They do so in response to the faithful witness, even to death, of the two witnesses. Then in chapter 12, we read again of successful witness, the defeating of the Dragon by Jesus’s comrades due to the “blood of the Lamb and the word of their testimony” (12:11).
In chapter 14, immediately following an intimidating vision of the Beast and the False Prophet who seemingly run roughshod over human societies and receive the worship of the deceived multitudes (“who can fight against [the Beast]?” 13:4), we are relocated to Mt. Zion to observe the Lamb and his faithful followers (14:1-5; numbered here 144,000, a symbolic number we learned in chapter 7 that signifies the countless multitude of those whose white robes were washed in the Lamb’s blood). This faithful multitude does stand strong and defiant in face of the Beasts, singing songs of victory.
When we get to the final “battle” (that is not actually a battle) of chapter 19, Jesus rides forth victoriously before any battle is fought (19:11-13) and is joined by weaponless “armies” who are also already wearing victorious white linen (19:14) due to their faithful conquering. In the end, New Jerusalem is shown to be not so much a physical structure but a human community made up of the 12 tribes of Israel and the 12 apostles of the Lamb (21:12-14). The creation of New Jerusalem, thus, is seen in Revelation as a co-creation—the work of the One on the throne, the Lamb, and the Lamb’s faithful people.
(4) The victory of the Lamb and his followers in Revelation is a victory won with the weapons of the Spirit—nonretaliatory resistance to the Domination System, love of neighbor, truthful speech—and has actually in many ways been achieved prior to the beginning of Revelation in the story told in the gospels. At the same time, Revelation does emphasize an ongoing conflict. The Powers—Dragon, Beast, False Prophet—continue to resist God and to deceive and dominate. So, it’s not inaccurate to recognize a battle motif in Revelation. We must notice, though, the true parameters of this conflict.
The enemies of God are the “destroyers of the earth”—and these Powers must be “destroyed” (11:18). However, we must note that the successful carrying out of this destructive work leads not to the destruction of God’s human enemies (e.g., “the kings of the earth”). The Powers are destroyed, and this leads to the healing of those human enemies.
The means of destroying the destroyers may be seen as the model means for all engaging all subsequent interhuman conflicts—the effort to break the deceptive hold of the Powers’ ideologies and propagandas and false loyalties in order to free human beings to worship the true God. This deception is broken, going back to the gospels, through Jesus’s faithful living, love of neighbor, truthful speech. When the Powers execute Jesus, they reveal themselves to be agents of the Dragon, not of God. Their credibility is broken, and their deception can be ended.
Thus, Jesus wars against the Powers using the “weapons” of love, courage, clear talk, solidarity with the vulnerable, and suffering love (all captured in the metaphor of “blood”). The “blood” of Jesus and the “blood” of his followers defeats the Powers, destroying their credibility and their hold on deceived humanity. Violence, in this story, is not violence visited upon God’s enemies by God, but it is violence accepted by God and the Lamb and the Lamb’s people as the consequence of their faithful witness—violence that witnesses to liberation and healing.
(5) Revelation concludes with a vision of New Jerusalem, a place of healing (Rev 21–22). God heals the nations and the kings of the earth—those who earlier in the book rebelled against God. They join the faithful multitude of chapter 7 in establishing the city that practices the politics of the Lamb.
The peaceable message that Revelation proclaims, I suggest, is not a message that everything will turn out okay in the end. It is not a message of an interventionist God who is in control of history. It’s a message of the sovereignty of love. It is a message of the call to have love shape our values and ideals and convictions and loyalties in all areas of life. It is a realistic message embedded in the pain and alienation of life in history, in this world. The plagues reflect the difficult realities we face as we begin 2021. They are the context for Revelation’s call to “conquer” with love, a call the remains valid for those of us today who are sensitive to the same Spirit that fueled John’s creative imagination.