Sunday, April 26, 2020

A Christ-Centered, Cross-Shaped Interpretation of Revelation 19

In a previous post, Luke 24 and Reading the Scriptures, I made the point that we ought always interpret the Scriptures in a Christ-centered, cross-shaped way. In this post, I seek to apply that to the interpretation of Revelation 19.

There are several things to note about reading the book of Revelation in general. First, the book is, by its nature as apocalyptic literature (the title in Greek is Apocalypsis), a highly figurative, highly symbolic literature with high hyperbole. It is not given as a literal exposition of anything but is given to John the Revelator through signs and visions.

Second, interpretation of Revelation is famously controversial and has been subject to all kinds of interpretation — some preteristic, some futuristic, some historistic, some spiritual — and the Church has never settled on how it should be approached, let alone what it means. Indeed, the Church did not receive it into the canon without great difficulty. It was not generally accepted in the East, just as the book of Hebrews was not generally accepted in the West. But in the end, both books were finally received by both East and West and are deemed authoritative for the Christian faith.

Third, because of the highly figurative nature of the book, and because of the extreme difficulty of coming to any agreement about what it is about and how it should be read, the book of Revelation should not be used to establish doctrine.

So, fourth, the book of Revelation becomes something of a Rorschach test. That is, what people often find in it is what they bring to it to begin with. For example, some who see God as retributive, see Revelation 19 as showing Christ in a retributive mode. Others, such as myself, do not.

But here is what I do see about Revelation 19: I see Jesus coming to judge injustice and to wage war by his justice. The nature of divine justice is that it comes to set things right in the world. We see the justice of God most clearly in the Cross and the Resurrection, where Christ destroyed death and the power of the one who held the power of death — that is, the devil (Hebrews 2:14-15).

In Revelation 19, Jesus shows up on the scene with his robes dipped in blood. But whose blood is it? Has Jesus suddenly become a killer, a shedder of other people’s blood? No, that would be quite opposite to how Christ is revealed in the Gospel, as other-centered, self-giving love. But the blood that stains his robes is his own. For the Lion of Judah is the Lamb of God slain from the foundation of the world for the sins of the world. So the blood on his robes has been there from the beginning of the world — his own blood, shed for us.

His name is the Word of God, and out of his mouth comes a sword. It is not a literal sword; it is the Word of God that is quick and powerful and sharper than any double-edged sword, and it comes to discern the thoughts and dispositions of the heart (Hebrews 4:14). He comes to judge the motives and purposes of the heart, to eliminate those motives that do not belong so as to properly establish those that do. The judgment of God that comes to remove wickedness is not pleasant to endure. But it comes to heal, not to harm, for it is God purging evil from his good creation, so as to restore it to God’s original intention.

So the nations and kings of the earth are dispatched, in Revelation 19, in a very drastic and seemingly final way. The language is highly symbolic. Evil is being destroyed from God’s creatures, and it is a very serious business. But it is not intended to harm or destroy any of God’s creatures; it is intended to purge the poison of evil out of them and heal them.

Whatever happens to the nations and kings of the earth in Revelation 19-20 is not God’s final word about them. For in Revelation 21, we meet them once again, and in a very surprising way. Throughout the book of Revelation, they have been at enmity with God, embracing wickedness and making war against the Lamb and his faithful ones. But in Revelation 21, where do you suppose it is we meet them? In the Holy City, the heavenly Jerusalem that joins together heaven and earth. The City where the Lamb of God is himself the temple, the meeting place of God and humankind. The City where there is no darkness and no night, for the Lamb of God is its lamp and light. The city whose gates are never shut — never shut!

And into this City come the nations and kings of the earth, bringing their tribute with them (Revelation 21:24-26). They have been purified, for nothing impure can enter the City (v. 27). Throughout Revelation, they have been spoken of in the worst terms, but now they come into the City, purified, purged of evil. So, whatever happened to them in Revelation 19-20 is not the final word on them. Whatever happened to them was not to harm them but to heal and cleanse and purify them. (See After the Lake of Fire and Fire, Brimstone and Torment.)

Now, my interpretation is no more determinative of the meaning of Revelation 19 than yours or anyone else’s. But it is the one I see: Christ in his glory and goodness rescuing the world, even the most vile in it, for whom he has shed his own blood. In a word, what I see here is the gospel — I can only bear witness to it. And I am content that it is a Christ-centered, cross-shaped interpretation, which is as it should be.

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