For Christmas I was gifted with N. T. Wright’s “For Everyone” commentary set on the New Testament thanks to my wife and members of the New City Covenant church plant. THANK YOU!!! I’ve wanted this set of commentaries for my library for several years now, and it’s clear now that it was well worth the wait. Just as soon as all the shredded wrapping paper was collected and recycled, I was hard at work digesting the first book from the series I pulled from the shelf. I decided to start with Revelation. For one reason, I recently read Reversed Thunder by Eugene Peterson and loved it. 1 Also, having read a fair amount of Wright’s other work, I felt that Revelation might be where his theological insights would shine brightest—and I think I was right.
Wright’s commentary on Revelation is excellent! It’s accessible, thorough yet brief, and clearly organized. Wright remains true to his signature areas of insight, expounding on the historical-cultural, as well as the socio-religio-political, contexts of the book; the Person of Jesus in relationship to Israel’s God (including, obviously, a healthy dose of insight from Second Temple Jewish theology); the nature of the Jesus Movement out of which this text emerges; and the nature of the ‘salvation’ this book (and the rest of the New Testament) proclaim. Wright’s unique perspective on justification makes a few important appearances, and his hallmark critique of Platonic dualism in Western visions of the afterlife also shows up from time to time. Even his now common exposés of violence and systemic injustice make their way into the book. This commentary has all the things which have made N. T. Wright one of my favorite theologians to read.
Above all, Wright’s commentary on Revelation is most praiseworthy for its explicit Cruciform-centrism. 2 Five discernible themes in Wright’s exposition of Revelation make this clear:
- Jesus is the Lamb at the Center of God’s Throne;
- The Powers War Against the Lamb, the Followers of the Lamb, and God’s Good Creation;
- The Lamb is Victorious Over the Powers in and Through the Cross;
- Jesus’s Bride Conquers Like the Lamb—Through Self-giving Love;
- God is Faithful to His Covenant Through the Lamb, the Followers of the Lamb, and New Creation
As Wright plainly states upfront: “…the whole point of the book. Jesus himself won the victory through his suffering, and so must his people.” – p.10
1. Jesus is the Lamb at the Center of God’s Throne
The first major theme Wright highlights in Revelation is John’s scandalous locating of Jesus within the divine identity. For John, Jesus is no demigod nor mere creature, Jesus is worthy of praise due only unto God Almighty. Commenting on chapter 1, verses 9 through 20, Wright writes,
“When we are looking at Jesus, [John] is saying, we are looking straight through him at the father himself.” – p.8
“Throughout the book the focus has been on the uninhibited worship offered by the whole creation to ‘the One on the throne and the lamb’ (5.13). Jesus shares the throne of God; Jesus shares the worship which is due to the one God and him alone.” – p.170
“The lamb shares the praise which belongs to the one and only God. This is John’s way of glimpsing and communicating the mind-challenging but central truth at the heart of Christian faith: Jesus, the lion-lamb, Israel’s Messiah, the true man — this Jesus shares the worship which belongs, and uniquely and only belongs, to the one creator God.” – p.58
In classic Wright fashion, however, Jesus’s divinity is not simply formulated in vanilla, systematic language. No, Wright sticks close to text of both chapters 4 and 5, drawing out from them a more robust and biblical explanation for how Jesus and the creator God of Israel share the one divine identity—and what that means for “followers of the lamb.”
“But notice what this means. The affirmation of the full, unequivocal divinity of the lion-lamb comes, and only comes, in the context of the victory of God, through the lion-lamb, over all the powers of evil. It isn’t enough just to agree with the idea, in the abstract, that Jesus is, in some sense or other, God. (People often ask me, ‘Is Jesus God?’, as though we knew who ‘God’ was ahead of time, and could simply fit Jesus in to that picture.) God, as we have already seen in Revelation, is the creator, who is intimately involved with his world, and worshipped by that world. God has plans and purposes to deliver his world from all that has spoiled it; in other words, to re-establish his sovereign rule, his ‘kingdom’, on earn as in heaven. It is at the heart of those plans, and only there, that we find the lion-lamb sharing the throne of the one God. The church has all too often split off a bare affirmation of Jesus’ ‘divinity’ from an acceptance of God’s kingdom-agenda. To do so is to miss the point, and to use a version of one part of the truth as a screen to stop oneself from having to face the full impact of the rest of the truth. We discover, and celebrate, the divinity of the lion-lamb Messiah only when we find ourselves caught up to share his work as the royal priesthood, summing up creation’s praises before him but also bringing his rescuing rule to bear on the world.” – p.58-59
Wright’s criticism hits home. It is far too easy to talk about Jesus’s “divinity” in an abstract sense—distancing ourselves from our responsibility to embody Jesus’s Kingdom Way in and through our lives. It’s not enough for us to simply acknowledge Jesus’s divinity in theory, Wright is saying, we must also acknowledge Jesus’s divinity in practice.
2. The Powers War Against the Lamb, the Followers of the Lamb, and God’s Good Creation
The second theme Wright draws out from Revelation is the reality of opposition to God’s purposes. Revelation is full of “monsters” (as Wright calls them). The satan is depicted as a dragon, there is a monster that rises up out of the sea, and there is also a land monster. Together they form what Wright calls, an “Unholy Trinity,” “the ghastly combined parody of God, Jesus and the spirit.” (p.120)
Wright skillfully draws out the meaning of these apocalyptic images, and gives us much-needed insight into both the ancient world, as well as our contemporary world.
“The profound problems within that creation mean that the creator must act decisively to put things right, not because creation is bad and he’s angry with it but because it’s good and he’s angry with the forces that have corrupted and defaced it, and which threaten to destroy it (11.18)” – p.49
“The monster is Rome. Or rather, as we shall see, the monster is the dark power of pagan empire… John sees behind the pomp and purple to the dark spiritual reality of satanic rule which has enabled the empire to impose itself across so much of the world.” – p.116
“As often in the world of realpolitik, or underworld dealings, so in the world of spiritual warfare: the ultimate powers prefer not to show themselves, but to act through others. They choose secondary and tertiary intermediaries; they give them some of their power; they back them up where necessary. We are today perhaps more aware than some of our forebears of how what we call ‘dark forces’ go to work.” – p.115
This is not just a history lesson either. Wright draws the connection from the message of Revelation to the application for Christians and churches today.
“…the abiding and overriding lesson for the church, then and now, should nevertheless be clear. The brutal but seductive ‘civilizations’ and national empires, which ensnare the world by promising luxury and delivering slavery, gain their power from the monster, the System of Imperial Power. Some have called this ‘the domination system’, a system which transcends geographical and historical limitations and reappears again in every century.” – p.157
As usual, Wright challenges readers to overcome the compartmentalization that is part and parcel with modern Western culture, seeing instead that the ‘spiritual’ and ‘material’ realities of our world are interrelated. The message of Revelation applies just as much to the suburban U.S. homemaker unknowingly enslaved by the unseen system of materialistic idolatry as it is to the first-century pagan peasant consciously aware of her domination by Rome.
3. The Lamb is Victorious Over the Powers in and Through the Cross
The Good News is that the powers have been defeated! Try as they might to cling to the last vestiges of power, the forces of darkness have been conquered in principle by the powerful, self-sacrificial love of God demonstrated supremely in Jesus’s Cross.
“The reality is that the creator God and the lamb have already won the victory, the victory which means that those who follow the lamb are rescued from harm.” – p.73-74
“…the blood of the lamb, the sacrificial Passover-like death of Jesus himself, has rescued them from slavery to sin, making them able at once to stand in the presence of the living God.” – p.75
“John believed in the God of the Exodus, the God who sets slaves free. A huge amount of his book, as we have seen, was built up on the basis that what God did in Egypt he will do again, this time on a cosmic scale — and that the basic act of slave-freeing has already taken place with the sacrificial death of Jesus. ‘With your own blood you purchased a people for God’ (5.9). That’s Exodus-language, buying-slaves-to-set-them-free language. Now, John looks at Rome/Babylon and sees, with this mind’s eye, the slave-market.” – p.165
4. Jesus’s Bride Conquers Like the Lamb—Through Self-giving Love
God’s people, “followers of the lamb,” live like their Lamb-Shepherd, giving their lives away, courageous even unto death. Through their sacrifice, through their demonstrated love, they participate in the once-for-all victory of the lion-lamb, Jesus. This way of life is “cruciform”—a life shaped and molded by the power of Jesus’s Cross. In the same way Jesus humbled himself, served others, loved others, and gave his life for others, so too will his followers. And in so doing, they too will “conquer” the powers of death and hades. They too will participate in the victory of God over the dark forces of anti-creation!
“They are to ‘conquer,’ not by fighting back, but by following Jesus himself, who won the victory through his own patient suffering. Some in these churches will suffer. Some will die. All must bear patient witness to Jesus, thereby ‘conquering’ the evil forces that surround and threaten them.” – p.14
“We are told, again and again, that the lamb has conquered through his blood, his sacrificial death, and that his followers are to conquer in the same way.” – p.134
“The lamb has won the victory over the dragon and his sidekicks, through his own sacrificial death. Now he calls his people to put that victory into practice, by following him down the same path. Jesus had stressed this during his public ministry: if anyone wanted to come after him, they should deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. Somehow, the way to victory is the way of the cross. It was strange and challenging then, and it is just as strange and challenging today.” – p.124
“For some reason, all those talks and sermons I used to hear never got around to the second half of the verse: ‘I will come in to them and eat with them, and they with me.’ No early Christian could have heard those words without thinking of the regular meal, the bread-breaking, at which Jesus would come powerfully and personally and give himself to his people. Such meals anticipate the final messianic banquet (see 19.9). They are advance ‘comings’ of the one who will one day come fully and for ever. Those who share this meal, and who are thereby strengthened to ‘conquer’ as Jesus ‘conquered’ through this death, will have the most extraordinary privilege. It is already quite mind-blowing to think of Jesus sharing the throne of God — though the early Christians saw this as the fulfillment of Psalm 110 and Daniel 7. But now it appears that ‘those who conquer’ are going to share Jesus’ throne as well. They will (that is) share his strange, sovereign rule over the world, the rule to which he came not by force of arms but by the power of suffering love.” – p.40-41
“What we are dealing with is several different angles of vision on the one single great reality: that through the awful turmoil and trouble of the world, God is establishing through Jesus a people who, following the lamb, are to bear witness to God’s kingdom through their own suffering, through which the world will be brought to repentance and faith, so that ultimately God will be king over all.” – p.103
“[Revelation] is not about private spirituality in the present, or an escapist ‘salvation’ in the future. [Revelation] is about the living God confronting the powers of the world with the news that he is now in charge, and that the mode of his rule is that which was established by ‘his Messiah’, the lamb. ‘Suffering love conquers all’ is the message, as powerful as it is unwelcome (unwelcome, sadly, all too often in the church, as well as in the world).” – p.104
“The heavenly reality of the victorious battle is umbilically joined to the earthly reality of the martyrs’ deaths. As followers of the lamb, they believe that they have already been saved by his blood, and that his self-giving to death is the pattern which they must now follow. And that is what wins the battle.” – p.112
5. God is Faithful to His Covenant Through the Lamb, the Followers of the Lamb, and Through New Creation
Death is not the final word for the followers of the Lamb. The Lamb is the Word of God made flesh, and he will have the final word!
God’s judgment is against all the powers of anti-creation, every force that would seek to deface or destroy God’s good world. God will not abandon creation; God will be faithful to his covenant promises and will reign and rule in justice.
God has sovereignly chosen to fulfill his covenant in and through his Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, and through Jesus’s disciples: the followers of the Lamb. In and through them, God will remake the world, he will re-establish his rule and reign on earth as it is in heaven.
“So many Christians have read John’s book expecting that the final scene will be a picture of ‘heaven’ that they fail completely to see the full glory of what he is saying. Plato was wrong. It isn’t a matter — it never was a matter — of ‘heaven’ being the perfect place to which we shall (perhaps) go one day, and ‘earth’ being the shabby, second-rate dwelling from which we shall be glad to depart for good. As we have seen throughout the book, ‘earth’ is a glorious part of God’s glorious creation, and ‘heaven’, though God’s own abode, is also the place where the ‘sea’ stands as a reminder of the power of evil, so much so that at one point there is ‘war in heaven’. God’s two-level world needs renewing in both its elements. But when that is done, we are left not with a new heaven only, but a new heaven and a new earth — and they are joined together completely for ever.” – p.187-188
“…the central reality of God’s future is Jesus himself, and because Jesus is not merely a future reality but the one who lived and died and rose again and even now reigns in glory and holds the seven stars in his hand, the reality of the new city, though still a matter of hope, is something to be glimpsed in the present, especially in the ways sketched throughout this book: worship and witness. The new city is not just a dream, a comforting future fantasy. Those who follow the lamb already belong in that city, and already have the right to walk its streets.” – p.195-196
“God’s generous love is the source and goal of all things. How can the city where he and the lamb are personally present be other than the great wellspring of life, flowing out to those who need it!” – p.199
“In the new creation, there is no room for anti-creation. In the world of life, there is no room for death.” – p.195
“It is from the city, the city where is the bride, the bride which is the lamb’s followers, that healing restorative stewardship is to flow. This is how the creator God will show, once and for all, that his creation was good, and that the himself is full of mercy.” – p.200-201
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with you all!
1. Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John and the Praying Imagination by Eugene Peterson.
2. “Cruciform-centrism” is a neologism combining “Cruciform” (shaped by or into the form of Jesus’s Cross) with “centrism” (to make central). By focusing his commentary around the centrality of the Church being formed into the image of Christ—particularly in his Cross-shaped, self-giving love—Wright’s book can aptly be called “Cruciform-centric.” For books on “cruciformity,” check out The Cruciform Church by C. Leonard Allen, Cruciformity and Inhabiting the Cruciform God by Michael Gorman. For more on “cruciform-centrism” check out my reflections on Revelation and Greg Boyd’s cruciform-centric hermeneutic, as well as Greg Boyd’s posts on making sense of the violent portraits of God in the Old Testament.