ReThink everything you thought you Knew

The Cruciform Center Part 4: How Revelation Reveals a Cruciform God

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I’ve been arguing that, while everything Jesus did and taught revealed God, the character of the God he reveals is most perfectly expressed by his loving sacrifice on the cross.  Our theology and our reading of Scripture should therefore not merely be “Christocentric”: it should be “crucicentric.” My claim, which I will attempt to demonstrate in my forthcoming book, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God, is that understanding God and reading Scripture from this vantage point changes everything, including how we understand the violent portraits of God in Scripture. I’ve thus far reviewed the centrality of the cross in the Synoptics, in John, and in Paul’s letters. I’ll now conclude these reflections by taking a brief look at the place of the cross in the book of Revelation.

Some have argued that Revelation presents an intensely violent view of Jesus. In the words of Mark Driscoll, a nationally known pastor of a mega-church in Seattle, “Jesus is a pride fighter with a tattoo down His leg, a sword in His hand and the commitment to make someone bleed.”[1] He went on to say that this “pride fighter” image of Jesus was a “guy I can worship,” while adding, “I cannot worship the hippie, diaper, halo Christ because I cannot worship a guy I can beat up.”

While Revelation has its fair share of violent images, and while much of this violence is associated with “the wrath of the lamb” (6:16). If we interpret this book as a prediction of literal future events — the way a good percentage of contemporary evangelicals interpret it —  then its hard to argue with Driscoll’s conclusion. (Even in this case, I’d still reject his contention that not being able to “beat up” someone is a precondition for worshipping him.  Didn’t we already “beat him up” on the cross?)

The thing is, Revelation is an apocalyptic book which, like all apocalyptic works, is filled with surrealistic word-pictures that are absurd if interpreted as literal.  John is not attempting to provide his audience with esoteric information about the last several years of world history. What good would this information do for everyone other than those who lived in this final period – and even for them, it would be too late! John is rather employing imaginative symbols to alter his audience’s understanding of their own world as a means of motivating them to live in it in a certain way – a way, we shall see, that reflects the non-violent, self-sacrificial nature of the Lamb.  This is why he tells his first century audience that the things he’s writing about will happen “soon,” and he encourages them to act “quickly” (1:1; 22:6).

Our job is to try to understand Revelation the way this first century audience would have understood it. And, as an increasing number of scholars are arguing, when we do this, we’ll find that John has masterfully taken violent images from the Old Testament and other apocalyptic literature and turned them on their head.[2] In other words, in John’s hands, these violent images become violently anti-violence.  Here are just a few examples.

1. In the throne-room drama in chapters 4 and 5 a “mighty angel” asks, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll” (5:2). Most scholars agree that this scroll is about God’s providential plan, including how he will defeat evil. The answer to the angel’s question is revealed by one of the elders who says, “See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and it’s seven seals” (5:5).  He is depicting Christ as the triumphant Lion of the tribe of Judah (cf. Gen. 49.9; Isa 11.1-5) which was a common, militaristic, ancient Jewish understanding of the Messiah.

John then shocks his audience, however,  when he goes on to reveal that this Lion is also, at the same time, a little lamb that had already been slaughtered (5:6)!  In identifying the Lion as the little Lamb that freely gave his life for a race of rebels, John has subverted the violence associate with the traditional image of the Lion while transforming our understanding about the kind of power God relies on to run the world and to overcome evil.  Yes, the Lion of the tribe of Judah valiantly fights his enemies, John is saying, but he does so not by relying on violence to tear them apart, the way a lion would. He rather does so by refusing to engage in violence against them, choosing instead to lay down his life for them.  As Paul had earlier declared, the true power of God is the power of the cross (I Cor 1:18), which his to say, the power of self-sacrificial love.  This is not a “pride fighter” who has come with “a commitment to make someone bleed,” as Driscoll imagined. It’s the Savior who comes with a commitment to bleed for others.

As numerous scholars have noted, the scene in the throne room sets the stage for all that will follow in Revelation. All the battles that follow flesh out what it looks like for a Lamb to wage war through the power of the self-sacrificial love of God, revealed most perfectly on the cross.

2.  Let’s consider the infamous eschatological battle scene of 19:11-21, a scene that many have argued contains the most graphic violence in the whole Bible and that is, not surprisingly, the most frequently appealed to by those who argue that Jesus is not above resorting to violence.  If we read this passage carefully, however, remembering that the warrior is actually the slain Lamb, we’ll find that the scene graphically portrays not God’s violence, but his self-sacrificial love.

It’s true that Christ appears as a mighty warrior soaked in blood. The imagery of a warrior soaked in blood is common in the Old Testament and other apocalyptic literature that connotes a victorious warrior who is covered with the blood of those he’s slain (e.g. Isa 63:1-6). What’s interesting, however, is that Christ is soaked in blood before the battle even begins.  This is because this warrior isn’t soaked in the blood of his enemies: he’s rather soaked in his own blood that was shed for enemies. As was true of the mighty Lion in Revelation 5, this mighty warrior is none other than the slain little lamb who fights by shedding his own blood.[3]

It’s also true that this mighty warrior wields a sword. But it’s important to notice that this sword comes out of his mouth (19:15, 21, cf. 1:16; 2:26; 3:26). His weapon, clearly, is nothing other than the truth he speaks, which is why the title he rides into battle with is “Faithful and True” (19:11). In keeping with this, we find throughout the book of Revelation that the real battle that is being waged is not about swords clashing with swords, but about truth clashing with deception and, therefore, about Christ the truth speaker clashing with Satan “the deceiver” ( Rev. 12:9, cf. 20:2-3, 7-8).[4] This also is simply the warfare of the cross being played out in history, for on the cross the truth about God’s character was finally made unambiguously clear, over against the deceptive picture of God that Satan has been afflicting humanity with since the Garden (Gen.3:1-5).

3. Also in keeping with this theme, we find in Revelation that at the center of God’s plan for overcoming evil is his call for his people to bear witness to the truth of his lamb-like character by “following the lamb wherever he goes” (14:8) — which means, refusing to defend themselves with worldly weapons, choosing instead to allow themselves to be martyred, just as Jesus did. They imitate his cruciform mode of war and they overcome “by the word of their testimony and the blood of the lamb,” which means, by imitating his self-sacrificial death (12:11). As Loren Johns notes, John radically redefines “triumph” in a lamb-like direction, just as he redefines the concept of divine power.[5]

4. Because John consistently draws the closest possible connection between the “lamb” and “God,” it’s clear that John understands the sacrificial lamb to be the definitive expression of God’s true character.  So too, he describes the Lamb as having  “seven eyes” and “seven horns” (5:6), depicting the fullness of divine wisdom and power, according to most scholars.  By associating God’s omniscience and omnipotence with the slaughtered lamb, John has radically transformed standard assumptions about God’s sovereignty. As Mitchell Reddish notes, in Revelation, “God’s control over the universe is exemplified in the sacrificial, suffering work of the Lamb, not in coercive domination.”[6] In the words of G.B. Caird, John has transformed a standard conception of omnipotence as “the power of unlimited coercion” into omnipotence as “the invincible power of self-negating, self-sacrificial love.”[7]

As I intimated above, this stunning reframing of God’s character in Revelation is crucial, for revealing this character is the primary way the Lamb and his lamb-like followers overcome Satan and his violent regime. And, as I also mentioned above, it is simply a playing out of the battle that was decisively fought on Calvary.

I agree with Steven Friesen that this revision of traditional warfare imagery, with its stunning revisioning of God’s power as the power of self-sacrificial love “is so contrary to normal human practice that most churches throughout history have not agreed with John…”[8] I can’t help but suspect that this is at least part of the reason why the genius of John’s symbolic transformation and beauty of his non-violent, self-sacrificial message, have so rarely been grasped throughout history. To this day the majority of Christians are unfortunately more comfortable with a “pride fighter” who slays enemies than with a sacrificed Lamb who calls us to love them to the point of death – our death, not theirs.

Are you among those today who are convinced that the time has come to accept that the cross is the definitive revelation of God’s character and power, and thus the definitive revelation of the kind of character and power God wants his people to exhibit and rely on?  It begins by recognizing that the cross is the thematic center of Jesus’ revelation of God. In this post I’ve attempted to demonstrate that, not only is it thematically central in Revelation, it is the lens through which John reinterprets all the violent images he employs in this work, transforming them into images of self-sacrificial love. And this leaves us with the question: What would happen if we interpreted all of Scripture, including its violent depictions of God, through this same lens?

Think about it.

For more on reading Revelation that highlights the centrality of the cross, here is a recent sermon I gave.

http://whchurch.org/sermons-media/sermon/new-creation

 

Suggested Further Reading

(of books that advocate a non-violent reading of Revelation)

R. Bauckham., The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation (Edinburgh:   T&T Clark)

—-  The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993)

M.  Bredin, Jesus, Revolutionary of Peace: A Nonviolent Christology in the Book of Revelation (Carlisle, U.K/ Waynesboro, GA.: Paternoster Press, 2003)

V. Eller, The Most Revealing Book of the Bible: Making Sense out of Revelation (Grand  Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, rpt 1982 [1974])

J. Johns, The Lamb Christology of the Apocalypse of John (Mohr Sieback : Tübingen, 2003)

T. Y.H. Neufeld, Killing Enmity: Violence in the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2011)

P. Sprinkle, Fight: A Christian Case for Nonviolence (Colorado Springs: David C. Cook, 2013)

M. Street, Here Comes The Judge: Violent Pacificism in the Book of Revelation (xxx: T & T Clark, 2012)

S. K. Tonstad, Saving God’s Reputation: The Theological Function of Pistis Iesou in the Cosmic Narratives of Revelation (LNTS 337; Edinburgh: T & T Clark)

D. Weaver, The Non-Violent God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmanns, 2013)

—-The Non-Violent Atonement (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001)



[1] “Seven Big Questions: Seven leaders on where the church is headed,” Relevant Magazine.com.(http://web.archive.org/web/20071013102203/http://relevantmagazine.com/god_article.php?id=7418), accessed 11/15/10.

[2] I’ve provided a sampling of some of these authors under a “Suggested Further Reading” list at the end of this post.  There also you’ll see full bibliographical material on the authors and books I’ll sight below.

[3] Boring , Revelation, 196; Johns,  Lamb Christology, 184; Eller, Most Revealing, 176-77; Bredin,  Jesus, 200, 214-16.

[4] Bauckham, Revelation, 91

[5] Johns, Lamb Christology, 175–180.

[6] M. Reddish Revelation (Macon, GA.: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 22.

[7] Caird,  Revelation, 75 (XXX check edition)

[8] S. Friesen, Imperial Cults and the Apocalypse of John: Reading Revelation in the Ruins (Oxford: Oxford University Pres, 2001), 216.

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The Cruciform Center Part 4: How Revelation Reveals a Cruciform God
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