Scripture Class on Revelation 1-3

Towards a Theology of Revelation (2)

Last class, we had an overview of the narrative plot of the book of Revelation, so that we might now set its theology within the proper context of the whole book. In what follows, we’ll briefly consider 1) from what life setting the theology of Revelation springs and then 2) deal with the first of three elements of its theology, namely its presentation of God and of his universal reign.


Life setting

It is the anguished cry on the lips of the Christian martyrs in Rev 6:9-10 that perhaps best expresses the fountainhead of John’s theology: “When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain for the word of God and for the witness they had borne; 10 they cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before thou wilt judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell upon the earth?”” This is theodicy, as found in so many psalms of lament and in Job: Is God just or not, and if so, when will he bring his retribution?


This question arises from the real historical situation of the Church in Asia Minor: the worship of Apollo and Aphrodite on the island of Patmos seemed triumphant; so did the cult of Artemis and of the Flavian emperors in Ephesus. The theology of John is therefore born of suffering and questioning: it is not merely speculative but engaged in reality and bold.


In Rev 1:9, there is a first all-encompassing answer to the cry of the martyrs. Here John situates himself and the churches of Asia at the intersection of three dimensions: tribulation, kingdom, and perseverance (thlipsis, basileia, hypomonē). They have already begun to participate in the kingdom because Christ has made them a kingdom, priests to his God and Father. For this, a first doxology rises to him, which will be prolonged in all the doxologies of the book. But participation in the kingdom is also something reserved for the future because the servants of God will reign “for ever and ever”, as is said in many places in the book. However, since they possess this royal dignity already in part, it gives them a strong basis for perseverance in the present time of tribulation. Notice here the dimensions of past, present and future that come together in the book of Revelation.


From the above-mentioned troubled circumstances of life on Patmos and in Asia is born a theological reflection on God’s universal rule (1), on Christ’s redemptive work (2), and on the royal, priestly-liturgical, and eschatological calling of the people of believers (3). We will consider these aspects one by one in this and the following classes.


  1. The reign of God and the theology of history
  2. God as pantokratōr

Revelation has three images for Christ, as we’ll see, but for God it has only one, that of universal king. This sovereignty is expressed by means of the title pantokratōr (almighty), by the phrase “who is and who was and who is to come”, and by the homage which God receives from the heavenly court. Regarding the latter, the twenty-four elders represent all of history – twelve tribes of Israel and twelve apostles of the Lamb – while the four living creatures represent all of creation. Whereas the sayings and parables of Jesus in the synoptic Gospels announce the kingdom of God with imagery taken from the routine of the home, the field, the lake or the temple, John of Patmos doesn’t refrain from taking imagery proper even to governance and kingship. Two symbols which he especially employs are the throne and the scroll.

The throne is mentioned twice in the first chapters, but from 4:2 onwards it occurs thirty-four times, connecting and dominating all the subsequent scenes until the final vision of the eschatological Jerusalem, where it is adored for ever and ever. In 7:9, the throne is mentioned in parallel to the Lamb, meaning that it stands for God himself: “They stood before the throne and before the Lamb.” Throughout the book, lightning, thunder, voices and words issue forth from the throne which give impulse and direction to the ensuing events.

The scroll which the sovereign holds in his right hand is comparable to the ancient Near Eastern concept of heavenly tablets containing incontestable decrees. In contrast with the synoptic parables of the kingdom which call for vigilance, decisiveness, mercy or confident prayer, the throne and the scroll in Rev 4-5 reassure the believer that God has the governance of the world firmly in hand and that his intervention is certain and effective.


  1. Mediators of divine action

God’s action is entrusted to two groups of seven ministering angels, the angels of the trumpets and the angels of the bowls. They in turn do not act directly but by means of the scourges unleashed by the trumpet blasts or emptying of their bowls on the earth. What is more, often humanity is struck not in itself but in the environment to which its life is connected (earth, salt waters, fresh water, sky and air). The ecologically sensitive modern reader can be uncomfortable with such a depiction of the Creator who destroys his own creatures but we will see this facet better later on.

From what is said above, it emerges that God guides history with a firm hand and yet acts by means of intermediaries and secondary causes. John of Patmos, whose tendency is to emphasis and simplify, can at times also recognize the complexity of history. If his simplifications give reassurance, his manner of presenting complexity, on the other hand, meets perennial objections about the delays, the seeming contradictions, and the inexplicable exceptions in God’s mode of acting. Our instinctive disquiet at the anti-ecological scourges should keep in mind the gravity of man’s sin that harms even nature, which also groans in expectation of redemption (Rom 8:19-22).


  1. The new exodus and the thousand-year reign

The terminology (plēgai-plagues) and the nature of the scourges (e.g., water changed into blood, boils, darkness) indicate that the angels of the trumpets and bowls are commissioned to bring down the plagues of the new exodus. The rod with which Moses struck the Nile stands in the background, but already now the praise of Christ’s work echoes over the sea of the new victory: “Those who are victorious…sing the song of Moses, the servant of God and the song of the Lamb.” The new fugitives who cross the sea are “those who have conquered the Beast, its statue and the number of its name”, and the land of slavery from which they have escaped is iniquity and idolatry, rampant throughout the oikoumenē and wielding great economic and political power. By means of the positive memory of the exodus, John of Patmos wishes to defend the church from the siren song that is coming from all around her.

But the exodus scourges are not intended for destruction – neither that of the created environment (since they are destined for human beings) nor that of human targets such as the worshippers of demons and idols or the subjects of the kingdom of the Beast. These new plagues are medicinal, meant for conversion, not for chastisement or destruction. It is true that John has no illusions about the likelihood that the world of idolatry will have a change of heart. If on the one hand he seems to defend divine providence by saying that it is benevolent towards all creatures, on the other, he invites us not to put our trust in the new pharaohs who harden their hearts in the face of God’s summons.

Though the scourges of trumpets and bowls seek to redeem offenders, they do not bring justice to those offended by them. In this way, the author puts off divine recompense until the thousand-year reign when those who have died for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God live again and reign with Christ. What is this reign? It seems to concern not a certain future time period, perhaps just before the Parousia, but rather one of the dimensions of history to be kept in view together with all the others. In the God of Revelation there is therefore a mysterious synthesis of mercy toward sinners, of hatred for sin and of recompense for the faithful.

However, when God has exhausted all attempts at converting the world of idolatry, there remains only judgement. The truculent and trenchant tones in which this judgement is presented in Revelation strike us as harsh but they are also present in the synoptic parables, for example. Together with the image of the new Jerusalem, they summon us to make the right choice. This is ever in the background of Revelation: either one takes the side of Babylon and the two Beasts – but this leads to the fiery pool of sulphur – or one takes the side of the Lamb – and then one is heading to the water of life and the tree of life.


  1. Political power and obstinate opposition to God

Revelation depicts God as sovereign seated on his throne governing all of history, but in chs. 12-13 he introduces another throne, another kingdom, another reign, that of the Beast-from-the-sea, marked by arrogant contention with God (“Who is like the Beast?”) and blasphemy against him. The difficult text says that the Dragon or Satan gives to the Beast its own strength, throne and power, all of which echoes Lk 4:6 where the tempter says to Jesus, “Power has been given to me and I may give it to whomsoever I choose.”

Political power is demonic, then, for John, and so is all its swagger and rapacity: lording it over nations, displaying flashy propaganda (fire come down from heaven, a talking statue), setting up corresponding institutions (the Beast-from-the earth or false prophet), exploiting religion (deceit, fornication, drunkenness), controlling the flow of commerce and finance (having the necessary mark in order to buy and sell), and wholesale oppression, state evil, and open warfare.

Power has an unbridled desire for totality: all the earth, all nations and peoples, not one but many kingdoms (seven or ten crowns), dominion over politics, religion and economy. And it desires to have the culmination of all strength: a multitude of heads or horns, the form of a leopard, the feet of a bear, the mouth of a lion, horns of a lamb and the voice of a dragon. Also, it wants the subjugation of all classes: “The small and the great, the rich and the poor, the slave and the free.” Whereas God is said to take away hunger and thirst, to protect from the burning heat of the sun and to wipe away all tears from the eyes of his faithful, the state opposed to God is said to broaden its political power (fornicating with the kings of the earth) and to rake in its own profit from the traffickers and merchants on land and on sea. The list of twenty-nine wares in Rev 18 is the longest in the whole book.


  1. The theology of history

John of Patmos depicts two contrasting scenes: the collapse of political thrones and imperial economic powers in Rev 18-20 and the rise of the throne of God and the Lamb at the center of the eschatological city at the end. It is quite true that power is demonic (if it is not evangelized; cf. Mt 20:25-28) but God alone is pantokratōr and Christ alone is “king of kings and lord of lords”.

This criticism of political and economic power is among the most original and energetic contributions of Revelation in the whole New Testament, together with the theology of history in which it is set. To churches smarting under the prosperity of persecutors and the unrequited sacrifice of martyrs, John says that history is a terrain of bitter opposition between good and evil, not a terrain open to carefree choices. The decisions of each person are not morally indifferent but lead to one or the other outcome. In their crises of growth and relationship with their surroundings, the churches need to know that history has a guiding direction, a judgement, and a goal.

%d bloggers like this: