Who is Jesus in John’s Apocalypse?

Who is Jesus in John’s Apocalypse?[1]

This is the second essay I wrote during my Study Leave.

Theses

The Book of Revelation is Christocentric.

The indicatives of John’s Christology have ethical imperatives for Christ followers.

Aims

To explore briefly some of the major Christological themes.

To note how John sees the ethical impact of his Christology.

To provide basic teaching material for one of The Forum discussions.

A question of method

David E. Aune argues that the Christology of Revelation cannot be discussed in the same way as the metaphysical issues of the Christological controversies of the 4th and 5th centuries. Theological claims are imbedded in the narratives and descriptions, and their meaning cannot be separated from their context.[2]

That context has intertextual and intratextual relationships: John draws heavily on the OT, and while he puts his own stamp on the formation of meaning, the intention is for readers and hearers to relate the one to the other to understand that meaning; while what can be drawn from one narrative in the book may be more or less consistent with what can be drawn from another, we need to carry in our minds pictures and descriptions from one section of Revelation to the other in such a way that they mutually inform that meaning – eg, titles and descriptions used in opening vision are also used in the seven letters.

The method of analysis, then, is similar to that of the way we approach the Gospels and Acts, but the genre of Apocalyptic must alert us to a greater fluidity of meaning in symbols and stories than we might expect in the Gospels and Acts.

Given that John’s intention is not only to inform his hearers about God, Christ and the Kingdom, but also to transform their attitudes and behaviour (as in the calls to repent), it must be supposed that we are able to draw behaviour-shaping meaning from the text: narrative, theology and praxis must be held together. So, when we ask, ‘Who is Jesus in John’s Apocalypse?’ and find that he is ‘the slaughtered Lamb,’ we must ask what that means and how, in the narrative, followers of the slaughtered Lamb behave, for that will shape how we are to behave.

Richard Bauckham,[3] in his analysis of the person and action of Jesus as seen in the Apocalypse, clusters meaning round particular themes that emerge from the narrative: messianic war, eschatological exodus and witness. These emerging themes help us to glimpse something of the author’s intended outcomes in shaping the lives of his hearers. Later we will draw on Bauckham’s analysis of John’s Christology, and bear in mind Aune’s caution regarding narrative context.

Grand-OpeningA Grand Opening

The start of any book gives an insight to its contents, and before we even reach the first vision, John sets the scene for us, not least in his description of Jesus. Three titles trip off his pen one after the other, each of which, on its own, would tell us a great deal about Jesus. Together, they blow a theological fuse. (They can also be linked to Bauckham’s three themes.) In his epistolary address John writes: χάρις ὑμῖν καὶ εἰρήνη ἀπὸ … Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, ὁ μάρτυς, ὁ πιστός, ὁ πρωτότοκος τῶν νεκρῶν καὶ ὁ ἄρχων τῶν βασιλέων τῆς γῆς (1:4f)

‘Faithful witness’ takes us to the Gospels and the trial of Jesus before Pilate. There, rather than denying who he is and accommodating himself to the power of Rome, Jesus gives true testimony, and pays the price. This picture of Jesus as ‘faithful unto death’ sets the tone for John’s hearers, that they too will be called upon to bear witness before other Pilates, and might be expected to face the same fate.

But for Jesus, and for John’s hearers, death through testimony will not be the end. Jesus is ‘the firstborn of the dead,’ whose faithfulness has been vindicated by resurrection. That he is the ‘firstborn’ gives hope to those who suffer a similar fate.

Before the third title, John might have written, ‘spoiler alert!’ Ahead of the catastrophes and cosmic battles, he gives away the ending, for Jesus is identified as the ‘ruler of the kings of the earth.’ Neither Pilate nor the Emperor, nor any of Rome’s vassal rulers, will keep Jesus from fulfilling his destiny as God’s appointed King. All will bow before the one who will be called, ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords (19:16).’

It is staggering that this language is being used of one who was known as the ‘carpenter’s son’ from Nazareth in Galilee. The contrast could hardly be greater between the origin and destiny of Jesus. John is seeking to help us perceive reality with new eyes through his ‘revelation.’

Jesus and God

the-heavenly-throneThe storyline of the Book of Revelation, in simplistic form, is that Jesus Christ brings the Kingdom of God to its completion in new heavens and new earth. All other narrative threads find their place within this giant canvas, and thus we might view the book as a whole as Christocentric.

Who is Jesus to be able to bring this to pass?

The worship of Jesus

After an epistolary prologue, the main body of Revelation begins with a Christophany in which John first hears then sees ὅμοιον υἱὸν ἀνθρώπου (1:13). At this point he is clearly drawing on the Danielic visions of one who is the agent of God, who brings God’s Kingdom to its fullness. However, John’s description of this ‘one like a son of man’ reads more like a description of the Ancient of Days! Further, this voice says to John: ἐγώ εἰμι ὁ πρῶτος καὶ ὁ ἔσχατος καὶ ὁ ζῶν, καὶ ἐγενόμην νεκρὸς καὶ ἰδοὺ ζῶν εἰμι εἰς τοὺς αἰῶνας τῶν αἰώνων καὶ ἔχω τὰς κλεῖς τοῦ θανάτου καὶ τοῦ ᾅδου (1:17f.). This echoes what John hears of the voice of God just verses earlier: Ἐγώ εἰμι τὸ ἄλφα καὶ τὸ ὦ, λέγει κύριος ὁ θεός, ὁ ὢν καὶ ὁ ἦν καὶ ὁ ἐρχόμενος, ὁ παντοκράτωρ (1:8.). ‘First and Last’ is laid side by side with ‘Alpha and Omega’ (and both of these are used of Jesus in 22:13); ‘is, was and coming’ is paralleled by ‘living, was dead and alive for evermore.’ And so, as early as possible in his writing of this story, John is placing Jesus firmly within divinity, worthy to receive his obeisance. One of the most striking features of Revelation is the worship that is given to Jesus, not instead of God, but along with God. And this from strict a Jewish monotheist for whom the worship of what is not God is idolatry.

The worthiness of Jesus to open the scroll

This picture of the worship of Jesus is filled out substantially in the Throne Room scenes of chapters 4 and 5. After the dramatic worship of the whole of creation to the one who sits on the throne, the story focuses on the scroll in God’s right hand. Taking, opening, reading and bringing to pass the contents of this scroll requires someone who is a worthy agent of the one on the throne, and no-one is found. That is, no-one except ὁ λέων ὁ ἐκ τῆς φυλῆς Ἰούδα, ἡ ῥίζα Δαυίδ (5:5), a description drawing on Messianic traditions in the OT. This lion of a Messiah, however, turns out to be ἀρνίον ἑστηκὸς ὡς ἐσφαγμένον ἔχων κέρατα ἑπτὰ καὶ ὀφθαλμοὺς ἑπτὰ οἵ εἰσιν τὰ [ἑπτὰ] πνεύματα τοῦ θεοῦ ἀπεσταλμένοι εἰς πᾶσαν τὴν γῆν (5:6). We will draw more fully later on the description of this Lamb as having been slaughtered, but for the moment we must note the complete power this Lamb has because of its seven horns, and its all seeing nature having seven eyes, which are described as the seven spirits of God. This Lamb, while Messianic in nature, and thus acting on behalf of the People of God, has the qualities of the divine.

This becomes even clearer when we discover what it is that makes the Lamb worthy to open the seals of the scroll. Messianic deliverance turns out to have been accomplished through the Lamb having been slaughtered: ἄξιος εἶ λαβεῖν τὸ βιβλίον καὶ ἀνοῖξαι τὰς σφραγῖδας αὐτοῦ, ὅτι ἐσφάγης καὶ ἠγόρασας τῷ θεῷ ἐν τῷ αἵματί σου ἐκ πάσης φυλῆς καὶ γλώσσης καὶ λαοῦ καὶ ἔθνους καὶ ἐποίησας αὐτοὺς τῷ θεῷ ἡμῶν βασιλείαν καὶ ἱερεῖς, καὶ βασιλεύσουσιν ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς (5:9f). These words are sung by the living creatures, representing creation, and the twenty four elders, representing the People of God, in a new song of worship to the Lamb. Myriads of angels join in this song, addressing their worship τῷ καθημένῳ ἐπὶ τῷ θρόνῳ καὶ τῷ ἀρνίῳ (5:13). The Lamb is entitled to receive this worship because he is linked to the one who sits on the throne.

There are two occasions later in the book when John is reprimanded for wanting to give worship to angelic messengers (19:10 and 22:8f). They, and he, are aware that worship is reserved for God, yet time and time again in Revelation, worship is given to the Lamb with the one who sits on the throne. The Lamb shares in that divinity, the glory of which compels us to fall at his feet in worship.

It is this sharing in the nature of the divine and the Messianic victorious sacrifice as the slaughtered Lamb that enables Jesus to bring God’s Kingdom to completion. John’s ‘high Christology’ means, as Bauckham puts it, ‘what Christ does, God does.’[4]

But how does Jesus achieve his purpose of bringing the Kingdom to fulfilment? How does he accomplish this eschatological climax?

What Jesus does

jesus lamb lionIf, from our starting point of being people estranged from God living in a world in which sin is endemic and the enemies of God seem to have the upper hand, we think of what would be needed for the fullness of the Kingdom to come, we might theologise in this way: we need, individually and collectively, deliverance from sin; this good news needs to be shared across the world so that as many as possible would hear of it and respond; the enemies of God need to be faced head on and decisively defeated. In his dramatic narrative, this is the picture John paints for us, and he does so in ways that bald theological statements cannot match. There is allusion, vivid imagery, gut wrenching descriptions about defeat and victory, but by the end of the story we see the slaughtered Lamb and his followers winning through to enjoy the fruits of God’s new creation. [5]

Eschatological Exodus

From the time of Moses onwards, the Exodus of Israel from Egypt has been a paradigm for interpreting God’s saving action in the world. It involved deliverance from slavery, with the blood of the Passover Lamb marking out those who will be ransomed from that enslavement. Revelation is replete with Exodus symbolism, but none is more powerful than John’s recording of the song of heaven in chapter 5 (quoted above). Jesus is pictured as the Passover Lamb that has been slaughtered in order to effect this ransom from enslavement. He has conquered, not by overcoming his enemies by violence in response to their violence towards him, but by the surrendering of his life, the shedding of his blood. This Lamb died – or, rather, was slaughtered. However, in John’s vision this Lamb is now standing rather than lying. The one who was dead is now alive, his victory in death having been vindicated by resurrection.

But where this use of the Exodus model most departs from the original is that, rather than deliverance being limited to ethnic Israel, it is a multitude ἐκ πάσης φυλῆς καὶ γλώσσης καὶ λαοῦ καὶ ἔθνους (5:9) who are ransomed, a phrase that occurs several times in different forms throughout the book. By his sacrificial death he has created a multi-ethnic ‘kingdom.’

In the second half of the book, ‘There are also … references to:

  • Sinai-like disturbances of nature (11:19 et al);
  • Wilderness as a place of refuge (12:6);
  • Messiah/Lamb as deliverer from the slavery of Empire (passim);
  • Plagues similar to those in Egypt (15:1ff);
  • Those victorious over the beast standing beside the sea (15:2)
  • Victory song of Moses and the Lamb (15:3);
  • Lack of repentance (hardening of heart) after the plagues (16:9 & 11);
  • False signs performed (16:14).

… John is wanting his readers to pick up on the Exodus traditions and they will then understand, ‘John is telling us the Exodus story in a new way!’ He must be prophesying that we will have a new Exodus experience that will deliver us and lead us to the God’s promised land.’[6]

Jesus is, at one and the same time, the Messianic deliverer like Moses (or David), and the Passover Lamb. Deliverance for John’s hearers has been achieved!

Witness

witnessbox_cropWitness is a forensic term: its setting is the courtroom. The author of Revelation has a concern for truth and falsehood: what will stand and what will fall before the eschatological Judge? We have already seen how John places Jesus as ‘Faithful Witness’ at the head of his book, and this theme recurs in a variety of ways. Jesus is described thus: καὶ ἐκ τοῦ στόματος αὐτοῦ ῥομφαία δίστομος ὀξεῖα ἐκπορευομένη (1:16). His testimony is sharp and true whether he is speaking to his followers (2:12) or to the enemies of God (19:15, 21, where the rider on the white horse is called πιστὸς καὶ ἀληθινός).

One of the controverted terms is Revelation is τὴν μαρτυρίαν Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ (1:2) or simply τὴν μαρτυρίαν Ἰησοῦ (1:9 and elsewhere). Is it the testimony Jesus gave, or Christians bearing witness to Jesus? In 1:2, it appears in the context of Jesus passing on from God this revelation that John receives (in turn to pass on) and so is ‘the testimony Jesus gave.’ In the remaining occurrences (1:9, 12:17, 19:10 twice, 20:4) it is conceivable that it is the witness Christians give to others about Jesus, but in my opinion, because of the precedent of 1:2 and the wider context of ‘witness’ in Revelation, it rather reflects the idea of the belief Christians hold because of the testimony Jesus himself has given to them. ‘Whatever else he might appear to be to his followers, Jesus Christ is first and foremost God’s prime witness. Every other characterization must be interpreted in that light, and not the other way around.’[7]

This is in keeping with the tenor of John’s own comments about his and his hearers’ sufferings for their testimony. He intentionally draws on this Christological action in order to prepare and strengthen his hearers for the testing times to come when they will bear witness before the tribunal. The two witnesses of chapter 11 and the 144,000 in the martyr army all give their lives (or potentially so) for the testimony that Jesus has given to them. And implicitly he poses the question for his listeners: will they follow in the steps of the Faithful Witness, or will lies come from their mouths?

Messianic war

Deliverance and witness in a hostile context point us to the third of Bauckham’s clusters of ideas: messianic war. Deliverance necessitates a victorious deliverer; witnessing under threat requires enemies. Bauckham has argued convincingly that Revelation can be viewed as a ‘Christian War Scroll.’[8] Drawing once again on OT Messianism as the background, John paints Jesus as the deliverer, who defeats the enemies of God. He is identified as the one who has triumphed (5:5); he raises an army (7:1ff); much of the second part of the book records his encounters with the enemy. Riding at the head of his cavalry, resplendent on his white steed, wearing many crowns, he takes the armies of heaven into battle (19:11ff). This is the ‘king of kings and lord of lords,’ who strikes down the nations, rules them with an iron sceptre and treads the winepress of God’s wrath. But this deliverer is not like those who enforce the brutality of the pax Romana. He wears a garment dipped in (his own) blood; his sharp sword comes from his mouth and is the word of his testimony. He triumphs by word and sacrifice. His followers do the same.

While we can examine Bauckham’s three themes separately to some degree, they come together in the stories of Revelation. Those who experience God’s deliverance are those who accept the testimony of Jesus. They, in turn, bear testimony to the nations as part of the martyr army, whose warriors, giving themselves, and perhaps their lives, for this testimony, gain victory in the cosmic battle with the enemies of God under the leadership of ‘Faithful and True.’ John’s Christology of titles, descriptions and actions, draws in Christ followers to the actions of witness and warring.

Jesus and non-violence

There is no doubt that, over the centuries, the war-like nature of John’s Jesus and the plethora of militaristic images have caused many problems for interpreters of Revelation. Indeed, some would cast it from the canon altogether for this reason. But we have received it as part of Christian scripture and therefore have a responsibility to wrestle with its meaning rather than discard it. Does the Jesus of the Apocalypse reflect the Jesus of the Gospels?

Mark Bredin[9] has examined pictures that John uses (Faithful Witness, Pierced Servant, Son of Man, Lamb, Rider on the White Horse), and argues that John’s Jesus is consonant with the Jesus of the Gospels. John takes the violent militaristic traditions that he has received and gives them an ironic twist forcing hearers to reassess the traditions. This warring Jesus is a non-violent Jesus. He triumphs through sacrifice and his warriors must follow suit.[10]

Conclusion

John’s Christology comes to us in diverse forms: titles, descriptions and action stories. The images are dramatic and fluid, sometimes appearing to clash but in reality informing one another. The Christology of the early sections finds echoes in later sections, and the colours of his imagery for Christ come progressively into greater relief filling out our picture of Jesus.

The Christology of Revelation is so ‘high’ that there are times we do not know if it is God or Christ speaking/acting, and the two are so closely associated that we are forced to the conclusion that John sees Jesus as sharing in the divine nature of God. Indeed, where God appears in the story of Revelation, it is often to highlight the person and action of Christ the Lamb. The overarching story is about how Christ defeats the enemies of God, forms a universal People of God and receives his Bride, the New Jerusalem. The effect of this is to make Jesus the central character of the book. Revelation is Christocentric.

However, it seems clear that John’s purpose is not simply to tell us about Jesus, but also to help us respond to Jesus – as, indeed, he himself responds. We might say that the indicatives of John’s Christology lead us to ethical/spiritual imperatives, particularly in three areas of action.

  • Worship: as John describes his falling at Jesus feet and the praise of all the heavenly beings to the Lamb, he is conveying to his hearers that the only appropriate response to Jesus is to worship him as we worship God – and that we must not give worship to any angelic being or human Emperor. This worship takes the form of offering prayer, as the martyrs do, and praise, as all creation does.
  • Witness: Jesus is the True and Faithful Witness, who gave testimony that led to sacrificial death and resurrection; John is on Patmos for following this path of faithful witness and the martyr army, likewise, witness and give themselves sacrificially unto death. The creation of a universal People of God requires that Christ-followers of every age bear faithful witness to ‘the word of God and the testimony of Jesus.’ We are all to be in the martyr army, witnesses of the slaughtered Lamb.
  • Warring: while death in our culture is often interpreted as defeat, albeit sometimes heroic defeat, the deaths of the Lamb and his martyr army are, in fact, the means by which they triumph. John interprets the militaristic pictures of Christ through the lens of his death, the shedding of his own blood, his resurrection and the sword of the word of God that comes from his mouth. Simplistic correspondence of the military images has often led the followers of Jesus to take up arms against those who are seen as the enemies of God. What John intends for us is to resist the enemies of God with testimony and without violence, and do so through the Spirit who has gone out into all the earth. We are to speak and lay our bodies on the line. While it may appear to some that this leads only to defeat, it will be the same kind of defeat that Jesus suffered at the hands of Rome – a ‘defeat’ in death that leads to the victory of resurrection and new creation.

John, thus, presents his Christology in order to transform the behaviour of his hearers in such a way that they become more like Christ in a culture in which the powers of Rome might crush them for doing so. He helps them to see that this is not, in fact, the road to defeat, but the path to victory.

Select Bibliography

Aune, David E., 2005, ‘Stories of Jesus in the Apocalypse of John,’ in Longenecker, Richard N. (ed), Contours of Christology in the New Testament, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Bauckham, Richard J., 1993a, The Theology of the Book of Revelation. NTT. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bauckham, Richard J., 1993b, The Climax of Prophecy: Studies on the Book of Revelation. Edinburgh: T&T Clark.

Beale, G. K., 1999, The Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text. NIGTC Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Blount, Brian K., 2005, Can I get a Witness?, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Blount, Brian K., 2009, Revelation: A Commentary. NTL. Louisville: Westminster John Knox.

Bredin, Mark, 2003, Jesus, Revolutionary of Peace: A Nonviolent Christology in the Book of Revelation, Carlisle: Paternoster Press.

Osborne, Grant R., 2002, Revelation. BECNT. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

[1] The Christology of Revelation is more than a monograph in itself, so this essay is illustrative than exhaustive.

[2] Aune, 2005, 292f.

[3] Bauckham, 1993a, chapters 3 and 4.

[4] Bauckham, 1993a, 63.

[5] The following headings are taken from Bauckham, 1993a, chapter 4, though not addressed in the same order. The themes flow into one another.

[6] From my essay on the scroll.

[7] Blount, 2005, 47.

[8] Bauckham, 1993b, Chapter 8.

[9] Bredin, 2003, part three.

[10] Bredin, 2003, 213f.

About Jared Hay

I'm minister of Priestfield Church in Edinburgh (Church of Scotland), husband of Jane, father of two adult children and am interested in sharing ideas and information through this blog.
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