After three lessons celebrating Jesus’ resurrection to everlasting life, the next two take us directly into heaven itself — complete with a throne, crowns, jewels and plenty of fireworks.
The problem is, we don’t quite know what to do with it. For most of us, Revelation is foreign territory, full of first-century symbols that no longer communicate. For others, like Christian Zionists, Revelation’s symbols stand for current events leading inexorably to the last, great “battle of Armageddon” (16:16).
“Revelation” is the English word for the Greek “apocalypse.” This style of writing emerged between 250 BCE and 200 CE as a way to understand evil and explain why the righteous suffer. In Deut. 30:11-20, Moses had promised God would give material blessings to those who kept his commandments, but this promise didn’t seem to work anymore. Apocalypses addressed this agonizing question through visions that showed how God was in control and would ultimately work things out for good to those who remained faithful.
Our Bible contains two apocalypses: Daniel 7-12 and Revelation. A believer named John is exiled on the island of Patmos, probably in the late first century. He is a seer who receives visions of spiritual reality beyond ordinary human life. In Revelation 1-3, Jesus reveals himself to John with messages for John’s seven churches back in Asia Minor in the Roman Empire. Those messages contain both praise and criticism.
Then a voice calls to John, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this” (4:1). What John sees first is the center of heaven, which he can only describe in the symbols of his day. Some we recognize; some we may not. But we can make two observations.
First, the One on the throne is beyond human vision and can be described only as precious stones and rainbow colors. Second, the elders and living creatures worship this One in song and poetry without ceasing.
Read Rev. 4:1-11. List the symbols and what you think they mean. How does John’s picture of heaven compare with yours?
Moving on to Revelation 5, you must start reading at the beginning of the chapter so as not to miss the suspense John has poured into his plot.
We are still in heaven. The Indescribable One holds a sealed scroll in his right hand. The scroll represents the meaning of human history. But John weeps bitterly because he can see no one worthy to open it. Then an elder says, “Don’t cry. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah has conquered history. He can open the scroll!”
But no ferocious Lion appears. Instead, John is shocked to see a complete reversal — “a lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (4:6). Is this a joke? How can a murdered, yet still-standing lamb change the course of history?
Yet this Lamb becomes the controlling image of John’s entire apocalypse — showing that ultimate victory is not achieved by the military might of the Roman (or the American) Empire. Instead, as J. Nelson Kraybill puts it in Apocalypse and Allegiance, “The Lamb worthy to reveal God’s future for the world is himself a victim of violence.”
But John also shows that this Lamb-murder is not a once-for-all occurrence. He uses the same word — “slaughtered” — to describe Christian martyrs (6:9) and many other victims of violence (18:24).
Ponder these symbols throughout Revelation 5. How is absorbing violence rather than causing it more powerful than the coercive methods most Americans depend on today? How might it address our current issue of guns — or the arms race, or mass incarceration? Or is John’s theology too rigid, and there should be room for compromise?
Reta Halteman Finger teaches part-time at Eastern Mennonite University and is a contributing editor at Sojourners. Find her lessons on Revelation at eewc.com/tag/studies-revelation.