Unlocking the Strange Images of The Apocalypse

While reading up for our next Scripture Study session, I found a really nice summation of an idea we’ve been talking about when looking at the vivid and often bizarre imagery found in the Book of Revelation. “Rather than concealing meaning, the images [in the Apocalypse] reveal meaning by evoking associations in the minds of the readers.” (Craig R. Koester. Revelation and the End of All Things. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B Eerdmans Publishing, 2001. pg 78).

detail from Hans Memling’s Altarpiece of St John the Baptist, right panel (and all following images)

So, describing the Slain Lamb, of chapter 5, for example: John does not come out and tell us directly that this is Jesus. But earlier at 1:5-6, after just invoking “Jesus Christ” in his greeting, John says “to him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood and made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father …” which is echoed at 5:9 “Worthy are you [the Lamb] to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain and by your blood you ransomed men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and have made them a kingdom and priests to our God…” The Jesus who made a kingdom and by his blood IS the Lamb who made people of the world a kingdom and priests by his blood.

He does this not to make you play some memory/guessing game, but because a slain Lamb would evoke powerful images from John’s audience well-versed in the Old Testament … it is the sacrificial Lamb of Exodus who’s blood ratifies the covenant with Israel, a priestly people (see Ex 12:21ff & Ex 19:6). By identifying Jesus with this Paschal Lamb, his death is now one that frees people from death and brings freedom to God’s people, but now extended beyond Israel alone to “every tribe and tongue and people and nation”.

Right panel: The revelation to John. Memling Museum, Bridges, Belgium.

Keep this in mind as we encounter new, strange images; John is not trying to create some mystery of hidden figures of history; he is giving us rich symbols to help us DRAW OUT the deeper meaning of God’s salvation of his people by the Blood of the Lamb. Whenever a new image is encountered, assume John’s audience, then as now, is meant to understand and draw clearer meaning from an image. With that understanding, cast your memory back over other parts of The Apocalypse and the whole of scripture to find associations there (a good, Study Bible, Concordance or Bible search engine is helpful for this); use common symbolic meanings and metaphorical associations (astrological signs/constellations, for example); and find connections with ideas and figures that you know from Salvation history to make a richer more vibrant meaning rather than assuming an obscuring reason.

For as Scott Hahn says in The Lamb’s Supper (New York: Image Books, 1999. pg 65), “Would God really have inspired John’s Apocalypse just so that it could sit dormant in the back of the Bible, strange and inexplicable, for twenty centuries—until the time was fulfilled and the cataclysms came to pass? No, Revelation was intended to reveal, and its revelations must be for all Christians of all time, including its original readers in the first century.”

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