A more academic-style article, exploring the Christology (understanding of Christ) of the Book of Revelation.
The Revelation of John is an apocalyptic text rich in imagery and symbolism, with a particular Christological focus – indeed, it is described in 1.1 as ‘the revelation of Jesus Christ’ and concerns itself with the revelation of Jesus by Jesus, through the angel, to John the seer. Therefore, it is through how Jesus is presented that we can gain a ‘way in’ to the study of this most complex text of the New Testament. However, having said that, the life and teaching of Jesus are largely ignored, and the focus is on the heavenly exalted Jesus post-resurrection. The book follows a three-stage kenotic Christological model with the midd
le act, Jesus’ earthly life and ministry, largely ignored with the focus on the preexistent and post-resurrection Christ. Before beginning, to explore the book of Revelation, we must note that the apocalyptic idiom of the book was probably necessitated by the situation of the Christians in Asia. In the midst of persecution at the hands of the Romans and conflicting claims to power, meant there was a need for a strong stance: if you confess God to have asserted his rule over the world, then you cannot put your trust in any other earthly power or authority.
The most important Christological descriptions we will explore are: Christ as universal saviour and judge who shares in divine authority; as the slaughtered Lamb; the eternal ‘alpha and omega’; and the one worthy of worship alongside ‘the One who sits on the throne’. Finding in chapters 4 and 5 the climax and interpretive key to the text, we will argue that the most significant depiction of Christ is as the Lamb, and we will discuss the implications of this striking image.
Christ: Sovereign Lord
The sovereign and eschatological Lordship of Christ is a central image in the Book of Revelation. Against the backdrop of persecution, it is natural to focus on the sovereignty of Christ, Christ’s judgement on the wicked and the vindication of saints and martyrs. The role of Christ is to turn the kingdoms of the world into the kingdom of the Lord (e.g. 11.15), which is why the concepts of salvation and judgement are so inextricably linked. Because Christ ‘shares the one eternal being of God, what Christ is said to do, in salvation and judgement, is no less truly and directly divine’ than what is said to be done by ‘the One who sits on the throne’. Salvation, the formation of this eschatological kingdom, belongs both to God and to the Lamb (7.10) and they are related together in the New Jerusalem (22.3), which will be the final consummation of Christ’s victory. In this, Christ and God are so closely connected, with language and speech often inseparable, demonstrating a clear sense in which they are seen as, in some way, one in their reign over all creation.
It is this unity in sovereignty which means that ultimate victory is assured and both God and ‘the Lamb’ can occupy the divine throne together (5.6-13). There are political overtones to this understanding of Christ, he is described as ’Ruler of the kings of the earth’ (1.5); ‘the one who is about to shepherd all the nations’ (12.5); ‘Lord’ (11.8; 14.13; 22.20); ‘lord of lords and kings of kings’ (17.14; 19.16), in contrast to the imagery of two beasts (ch. 13), which is an assault on the imperial cult. Clearly then, the image of Christ as ‘lord of lords and king of kings’ is very Christologically significant. It has a twofold purpose: it demonstrates the close identification of Christ and God; and the finality of Christ’s victory over Satan and thus, his lordship over creation. However, this politically charged and powerful language is subverted by the central image which John uses; the ‘Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered’ (5.6).
The Lord of Creation: The Slaughtered Lamb
In the cosmic imagery of the Book of Revelation, the slaughtered Lamb is at the centre of the divine throne and, in a literary sense, at the heart of Revelation. The sacrificial death of Christ is the governing image of how God rules the world and accomplishes salvation – the love-that-suffers-even-to-dying is the messianic conquest and the focus of the book (Boring, ‘The Theology of Revelation’). This image is so significant as it provides the lynch-pin to the book’s central claim: the death and resurrection of Christ has won a decisive victory for God (ch. 5) and the world only awaits the revelation of the already fully consummated victory of God. The Scroll, which governs the narrative of Revelation from chapter 5 onwards, is also closely related to this. Christ is the only one ‘worthy’ to open the scroll, which contains the secret purposes of God for establishing his kingdom (5.1). There is then a deliberate juxtaposition of the language of ‘the lion of Judah’ (5.5), with its militaristic overtones, and the image of the slaughtered lamb (5.6).
It is the opening of the scroll which is the climax of chapter 5, and John’s decision to subvert the traditionally powerful and militaristic image of the lion with a slaughtered lamb is very significant – God from his throne conquers the world by being a slain lamb and not a devouring lion, this is the shocking irony of Revelation. This reversal of power could be compared to the Johannine theology of the Cross, which subverts the traditional expectations of the glory and kingship of God. The strength, which allows the Lamb to open the scrolls, is deeply unconventional; it lies in the consistent and non-violent resistance to evil which is the witness of Jesus, a resistance which led to his execution. The slaughtered Lamb is rightly described by Boring as, ‘one of the most mind-wrenching and theologically pregnant transformations of imagery in literature.’ The lion, referenced in Proverbs (30.30), 1 Maccabees (3.4) and other Second Temple literature as a symbol of strength and military might is deliberately contrasted with the symbol of a sacrificial death and the meaning of kingship, conquest, strength and power is subverted and redefined.
The Lamb, as we have discussed it, is undoubtedly a significant image for John in Revelation, indeed, I would argue it can be considered the most significant. It is the most significant because it provides the interpretive key through which God can be understood; as the sacrificial-victim in the centre of God’s throne, he is worshipped alongside God, and provides the definitive expression of God’s activity of salvation and judgement. The centrality of chapters 4 and 5 to the book also confirms the importance of this image, which subverts the worldly understandings of power prevalent at the time, and also provides the means of understandings of Christ’s lordship as ‘king of kings’.
The Alpha and the Omega
However, before drawing to a conclusion, we must explore the image of Christ as ‘the alpha and the omega’. This concept is used both of God and Christ (God, 1.17, 22.13 – Christ 21.6 etc.), reflecting the remarkable extent to which Revelation identifies Jesus Christ with God, which prepares the ground for later Christological debate and discussion. The centrality of this designation is underlined by its use seven times, the number of completeness (see also the seven beatitudes scattered through the text). John, in this symbolic use of numbering, shows the significance of this idea and writes the theological detail of his work into the meticulous composition of Revelation. This Christological statement expresses John’s belief that Jesus belongs to the fullness of God’s eternal being. In contrast to adoptionist Christologies, which understand Jesus as only being exalted after his resurrection (although the resurrection is significant in Christ’s participation in God’s Lordship (c.f. 2.28; 3.21)) Jesus in Revelation shares in God’s eternal being from the beginning. This idea has its roots in Isaiah (c.f. 44.6 etc.) and in YHWH’s claim to exclusive monotheism – God and Christ are creator and the bringer of eschatological fulfilment; in other words, the origin and goal of all history. As well as its roots in Isaiah, this idea borrows from the Greek philosophical tradition, it is used in this sense by Josephus in Ant. 8.280 and Philo, as an explication the divine name. However, this is not a static designation of Christ, he is described as ‘to come’, placing the emphasis on the coming salvation and fulfilment of his reign. This is not an ontological expression of self-existence in himself, but a promise of faithfulness and commitment to his people in history.
The designation of ‘the alpha and the omega’ is one way in which Christ is closely identified with the God the Father, which leads us to our final significant way in which Christ is depicted: he is depicted as receiving worship. Worship is a central concept of Revelation, as it indicates that which is due to the One Creator and none else. John undertakes a deliberate treatment of the question of true or false worship: there is the division between those who worship and the dragon and the beast (13.4, 8, 12, 15; 14.9, 11 etc.) and those who worship the one true God (7.15; 14.3; 15.3-4 etc.); there is also the double rejection of worship by the angel who gives John the revelation (19.10, 22.8-9). The worship of Christ is therefore not done from neglect, as the book’s stringent claim to monotheism in the sphere of worship precludes this possibility.
John implies that Jesus is somehow included in the monotheistic being of God. For example, the worship of the Lamb (5.8) parallels that which is offered to God (4.11) and the ultimate aim of the worship of the Lamb (5.8-13) is that it leads to the whole creation worshipping God and the Lamb together (5.13). This is not bitheism, but a functional identification of God and Jesus, in such a way that he can be included in monotheistic worship – particularly interesting is the use of singular verbs (11.15) and pronouns (6.17; 22.3-4) when God and Christ have been spoken about. While this may not be a deliberate allusion, it certainly points to John’s reluctance to talk about God and Christ in the plural. Christ is depicted amongst the candlesticks, which represent the Church, showing his centrality ‘to the life and activities of the churches on earth’, alongside the angels proclamation of ‘the eternal gospel’ which includes the call to worship the Creator (14.7, c.f. 13.8) points to Jesus’ worthiness to receive worship.
To conclude, there are several significant ways in which Christ is depicted in Revelation: his depiction as Lord and ‘king of kings’; as the Lamb who stands slaughtered; as origin and source of all history; and as worthy of worship alongside God. Each of these depictions mutually interpret and inform the others: the Lordship of Christ is informed by his inclusion in the divine identity; his Messianic victory is subverted and reinterpreted in the light of his depiction as the sacrificial victim and the power, worthiness and authority of God are located firmly in the readiness of the Lamb to die. It is therefore, the image of the Lamb which is the most significant of the Christological depictions in Revelation, as it informs the others and, in its central place in the pivotal moment of the text, contains the most profound teaching of the Book; at the centre of the throne of God, which has conquered all creation, is a sacrificial Lamb who governs the way God’s will is manifest in history. It is this Christology which influences the rest of this highly Christocentric and theological vision of creation.
Adapted from an essay submitted for supervision in New Testament Christologies (C3) as part of my Third Year Theology Tripos
at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge.