Revelation Retribution? Bradley Jersak

QUESTION

Your book, A More Christlike God, really helped me see God in a new light. I used to be afraid of God and constantly thought he was judging me. Your book showed me that God is love exactly like Jesus.

However, I wonder how you would handle some of the more violent and “judgy” passages in the book of Revelation, where Jesus is condemning and even threatening some of the churches. For example, in the message to Thyatira, Jesus (?) says,

  • 20 Nevertheless, I have this against you: You tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophet. By her teaching, she misleads my servants into sexual immorality and the eating of food sacrificed to idols. 21 I have given her time to repent of her immorality, but she is unwilling. 22 So I will cast her on a bed of suffering, and I will make those who commit adultery with her suffer intensely unless they repent of her ways. 23 I will strike her children dead. Then all the churches will know that I am he who searches hearts and minds, and I will repay each of you according to your deeds.

How are we to read this?

RESPONSE

First, thank you for your honest and puzzling question. I think we need to begin by admitting this is a very difficult passage, not merely because it seems to contradict my theological opinions but because it even runs counter to the heart and mind of Jesus portrayed in the Gospels and his revelation of his Father through his teaching and most especially the Cross. How could THAT Jesus possibly be saying these things?!

The answer is not to just ignore this section or to smooth out the language. But what then? You can see why the early church was VERY hesitant to include Revelation in the New Testament canon. Though some of the first Christian teachers received the book as authentically from John immediately, the church did not come to a consensus about its reception until the mid 390s A.D.! But in the end, they did … and we do. Having received it as Scripture, the question becomes how to read it.

GOSPEL JESUS VS. REVELATION JESUS?

I would start by acknowledging the significant differences between the Jesus portrayed in the Gospels and the Jesus we see in Revelation — even if I happen to believe the Gospel of John and Revelation were written by the same author! What do I mean by that?

I would say it this way: the Jesus of the four Gospels comes as an eyewitness account of the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, through apostolic witnesses who saw, heard, touched, and testified of him. And we’re getting the revelation of his Father directly through his teaching and his life, culminating in the perfect and final revelation of God in his Passion.

By contrast, the Jesus we hear speaking to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3 comes to John (1) in visions, (2) through an angel (Rev. 1:1), and delivers messages that are (3) highly rhetorical and (4) obviously symbolic. Further, those messages are being mediated to the churches through John, whose point of view and pastoral concern is invested in their telling, as it should be and as it had been through all of God’s prophets.

Could it be that those differences also account in some way for the difference in tone and content? Could the rhetoric of retribution arise through that mediated message? And does the problem lie with John (as if he’s distorted the revelation) or is it simply a matter of learning to read the apocalyptic genre in light of the Gospels?

THE CIPHER: THE LAMB SLAIN

Here is my suggestion. First, the Apocalypse of John (better titled the Unveiling of Jesus) comes with a cipher (a decoder): “Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain…” The cipher is this: whatever we read in Revelation flows from and points to “the Lamb who was slain”–the cruciform God revealed at the Cross, expunging wrath through forgiveness rather than taking vengeance.

The author of Revelation beheld that Lamb with his own eyes from the foot of the Cross. THIS Lamb is the One being unveiled so that even when John speaks of “wrath,” it is always the “wrath of the LAMB” (6:16-17). The wrath of the Lamb described in John’s visions consistently points to historical events generated by humanity in rebellion. It is the ‘wrath’ of self-inflicted consequences and sin’s intrinsic judgments. It is the ‘wrath of the Lamb slain’ because those historical events followed humanity’s rejection and murder of the Prince of Peace and his consent to our defiance. It is the ‘wrath of the Lamb’ because by undergoing crucifixion and responding with forgiveness, Jesus opens to us a redemptive path so that we may eventually find ourselves so up to our ears in consequential wars, plagues, famine, and death that we bottom out and finally repent and surrender to the Jesus Way.

REVELATION RHETORIC

Second, we recognize that through the Lamb cipher, even the direct threats that we see in the Jezebel passage are to be read rhetorically, not literally. To read it rhetorically is not to dampen the warnings of a real and dire outcome for those who remain defiant. Indeed, they are about to bring down an actual judgment upon their own heads (as we’ll see in chapter 6). The volume and intensity of the ‘threats’ signal the great danger and urgency of the moment and not some violent reactivity in Christ as such.

Yet without a doubt, the way that John conveys the message does sound like a direct threat of rage, of divine violence, and active retribution. Read as it sounds, the message runs SO contrary to John’s tone in 1 John 4:

  • 16 And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. 17 This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world, we are like Jesus. 18 There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. 19 We love because he first loved us.

SUBORDINATING JOHN’S VISIONS TO THE INCARNATION

Finally, I think we need to honestly recognize at least the appearance of a contradiction. And if a rhetorical reading of the wrath texts fails to cross that sizable disparity, rather than attempting to force a harmony between the Gospel Jesus with these visions, I would very carefully and humbly propose the following:

The angel-delivered visions of John and their rhetoric of retribution must first be read as “the wrath of the Lamb” and when necessary, subordinated (historically and theologically) to the four Evangelists’ eye-witness testimony of the Incarnate Son and his revelation of Abba, whose perfect love is revealed in his Passion.

A MESSAGE FOR US?

What I find very interesting about the seven ‘letters’ (they aren’t letters) to the churches is the outline that church and ministry leaders could and should consider today as their leadership teams attempt to listen to the Spirit of God for themselves. Each of the messages might be outlined under the following headings (where applicable):

I.    Jesus’s self-identifier (drawing images from chapter 1)

II.  Jesus’s Affirmations (“I know…”)

III. Jesus’s Critiques/Warnings (“This I hold against you…”)

[let those with ears hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches]

IV. Jesus’s Promise to the victors
I remember walking through this outline with a steering team that sincerely wanted to hear from God for their church. We engaged in prayer with a group listening time. I framed four sets of questions, then we listened quietly and attentively. After a time, each member shared what they had heard independently. I took notes and compiled the main themes into a prophetic message, trusting that Jesus was really speaking to them (as promised in John 16:12-15 and Matt. 18:20). I composed the questions this way:
I. Jesus, how would you identify yourself to us at this moment?
Who do we need to hear you as? [didn’t need to be from Rev. 1]
II. Jesus, do you have a word of encouragement for us today?
Where are we getting the Jesus Way right?
III. Jesus, we lay down our own agendas, fears, and defensiveness.
We really want to know: do you have an invitation to correction for us in this season?
IV. Jesus, do you have a promise for us to hang on to today?
One of the critically important elements of such a listening time is this laying down of agendas, fears, and defensiveness, lest those inclined to be critical pounce on the opportunity to insert their judgments, and those who tend to avoid conflict are apt to spin everything as cheery. In all of this, we remember that the Lamb of God “is light and in him is no darkness at all.” He calls us to follow him on the life-giving path to his Father who is “a good and merciful and man-befriending God.”  Even his corrections are that of a loving Father, eager to bring us into the glory of our true selves in Christ. Those who run from him may fall into a pit (and even there they will find him), while those who run from him will fall into his arms.
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Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak

Brad Jersak is an author and teacher based in Abbotsford, BC. He serves as a reader and monastery preacher at All Saints of North America Orthodox Monastery. Read More