Any discussion of 'the cross' in the Book of Revelation initially looks like a substantial challenge: in contrast with almost every other book in the New Testament, it is barely mentioned at all overtly. However the power and significance of the cross is at the core of the imagery and messages in John's apocalyptic vision.
Its solitary explicit appearance comes in an extended prophetic narrative in chapter 11: the bodies of the 'two witnesses' will 'lie in the public square of the great city, which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified' (11:8). The identification of the place in this way has led some to suppose that 'the great city' was John's oblique way of referring to Jerusalem. But it is very hard to think of Jerusalem as the city that 'rules over the kings of the earth' (17:18) who made all the merchants of the world rich (18:19).
Identifying it as a place of sin and debauchery ('Sodom') and a place of slavery for God's people from which they would be liberated in exodus ('Egypt') points to it as being the jurisdiction of Rome – by whose power Jesus was put on the cross. The crucifixion is therefore here described as exemplary: just as Jesus suffered and died on the cross, so his faithful followers, bearing prophetic witness after the pattern of Moses and Elijah, will also suffer and be killed. But like their Lord, they too will experience the victory of resurrection life in defiance of their enemies, and this will lead some to repentance (11:11-12). This single example highlights the complexity of analyzing Revelation for theological themes – a complexity which puts many ordinary readers off engaging with it.
Despite the widespread view that the text relates to some future 'end time' (which, remarkably, is always just about to happen), John makes it clear that he is writing a letter to his 1st-century contemporaries living in the province of Asia, the Western end of what we now call Turkey. This is clear from the epistolary language in 1:4-5 and 1:9 as well as the closing remarks in 22:8 and 22:21. It is evident in the local details within the messages to the assemblies in the seven cities, most strikingly in the language of 'hot, cold and lukewarm' (3:15-16) to those living in Laodicea whose lukewarm water supply contrasted with the hot water of Hierapolis (Pamukkale) lying on the opposite side of the Lycus River, and the cold water of Colossae further along the valley.
But it can also be seen in the practices of devotion to the emperor which find their way into the scenes of heavenly worship in numerous ways, and the descriptions of calamity brought by the four horsemen of chapter six – warfare, conquest, famine, disease and death – which were very familiar in the 1st-century world, and have in fact been throughout history.
In its first word, Revelation also calls itself an 'apocalypse' – a lifting of the cover so that we can see what is really happening – and a 'prophecy' (1:3), not so much meaning that it predicts the future (though there is plenty of eschatology in it) but that it offers God's perspective and reality on a world that otherwise might look quite different to the human eye.
Focus on Jesus
A wide range of ideas about Jesus are introduced in the epistolary greeting of 1:5-7, and many of these relate to Jesus' death on the cross.
First, the appellation 'Christ' (which occurs seven times in the Greek text but not in the NIV translation) appears to function as a name here, but it also stands alone elsewhere (11:15, 12:10, 20:4, 6) which suggests it has not lost its force as signifying 'the one anointed by God'. This title is immediately followed by the description of Jesus as 'faithful witness'; although the language of witness (martus, martyria) has a forensic sense of testimony in the context of trial, it quickly becomes associated with losing one's life as a result of adherence to the faith, in 6:9, 11:8 and 12:11.
John is here portraying Jesus' death on the cross as the result of his faithfulness as God's anointed one, a pattern of faithfulness in a hostile world which believers are urged to follow. This fits both with the language of Paul in Philippians 2:8 ('obedient to death') and of Jesus in his description of discipleship in Mark 8:34 ('Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me'). The pioneering nature of his resurrection is expressed in the phrase 'firstborn from the dead'.
Blood as freedom
In the second part of 1:5, Jesus' death is described using the metonym 'blood', which occurs again in this way in 5:9, 7:14 and 12:11 and offers some key insights into the meaning of Jesus' death. In this verse, Jesus' death is a sign of his love for us – a muted note in Revelation, mentioned only elsewhere in 3:9 and 20:9. Being set 'free from sin' is an important idea in Paul's theology (see Romans 6:18-22, 8:2 and Galatians 5:1) though John uses a different Greek word for 'free'. It also connects with the Exodus motif that is found throughout Revelation; our freedom from sin by the death of Jesus is analogous to the freeing of Israel from Egypt, protected by the blood of the Passover lamb.
The Passover connection continues in John's exposition of the goal of this liberation – 'to be a kingdom and priests to serve [him]', an adapted quotation from Exodus 19:6. Most commentators see the following combination of Daniel 7:13 and Zechariah 12:10 in Revelation 1:7 as a reference to Jesus' return (his so-called 'second coming'). But in Daniel 7, the 'coming of the Son of Man' is a description of this figure coming to the throne of the Ancient of Days from the earth, not the other way around. So here and in Matthew 24:30 (the only other place where these verses are combined) this must be a reference to Jesus' exaltation and ascension to God's right hand; the priestly task of those he has set free from sin is to proclaim him as Lord and lead the whole world to the 'mourning' of repentance.
Blood as redemption
In the second reference to 'blood' in 5:9-10, we again find the connection with the Exodus 19:6 language of 'kingdom and priests'. The notion of Jesus' faithful witness is now adapted into him being 'worthy' to open the seals of the scroll, which looks very much like a first-century will document. Because Jesus has been faithful to death, he alone is the one who can reveal to us God's purposes for his world and his people.
The effect of Jesus' blood is described in language of the agora, the marketplace, as Jesus has 'purchased' people for God, language that would include the manumission of slaves by paying the price of redemption. And those thus purchased have come from 'every tribe and language and people and nation', a phrase occurring seven times in the text, each time in a slightly different form (5:9, 7:9, 10:11, 11:9, 13:7, 14:6 and 17:15) which combines the covenant language of Exodus 19:5 ('out of all nations...') with the creation language of Genesis 10:31 ('clans and languages, in their territories and nations').
The redemption found in Jesus' death not only brings to a climax God's intentions for his covenant people, it also fulfils God's hopes for the whole of creation, as his grace flows out over the boundaries of one ethnic group to all the peoples of the world. This language already has a strong eschatological focus; this completion of both covenant and creation means that the redeemed will not be whisked to a heavenly bliss but will 'reign on earth', a promise expressed already in the messages to those in Thyatira, Philadelphia and Laodicea (2:26, 3:12, 3:21) and fulfilled in the final vision of the New Jerusalem in 22:5.
Blood: holy and pure
The third reference to 'blood' comes in the interlude of chapter seven, whose narrative function is to answer the question 'Who can stand...?' (6:17) in the light of the reality of the world and God's coming judgment. In the first half of the chapter, John 'hears' the nation of Israel counted in a census preparing for warfare (compare Numbers 1:2-3) and their number is a square times a cube (12 x 12 x 10 x 10 x 10) signifying the holy presence of God in his world, just as the New Jerusalem is a square and a cube (Revelation 21:15-17) imitating the shape of the Holy of Holies in the first temple (1 Kings 6:20).
But then in 7:9 he turns to see those who have been counted, and this finite Jewish group turns out actually to be the innumerable redeemed from all of humanity. They have come through great 'tribulation' (thlipsis 7:14) just as John and his readers are already experiencing 'tribulation' (1:9) – which Paul tells us is the lot of all who seek the kingdom (Acts 14:22; compare Jesus' teaching in Matthew 5:11 and Mark 10:30). 'Having washed their robes and made them white' could suggest readiness for (spiritual) combat (compare 19:14) but it more usually signifies purity and holiness (as in 19:8; compare Isaiah 1:18) that is granted to us through Jesus' 'blood'. It is the death of Jesus for us which gives us the purity, holiness and honour signified by the wearing of white, and this alone which allows us to stand in the presence of God himself. And enduring suffering out of faithfulness to Jesus is the right and natural response to what he has done for us, not an attempt to win his favour.
Victorious by blood
The final reference to 'blood' comes in the pivotal chapter 12. Adapting the popular pagan myth of Leto, Python and Apollo, used by Roman emperors as imperial propaganda, John tells us that it is Jesus (and not Roman imperial power) who offers us true peace and prosperity, since in his death, resurrection and ascension ('snatched up to God and to his throne' 12:5) he has finally defeated that dragon and snake Satan ('the accuser' 12:10) and dethroned him. This victory has been won 'by the blood of the Lamb'; it is Jesus' sacrificial death which has brought about Satan's defeat, so that he is 'Christus victor', a theme we find throughout the gospels (in anticipation in Luke 10:18 and John 12:31) and in Paul (Colossians 2:13-14, Romans 16:20). But once again we find the cosmic achievement of the death of Jesus intimately related to the response of believers in following his example: they (we) 'triumph[ed] over him by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony; for they did not love their lives to much as to shrink from death' (12:11).
Standing as though slain
These themes are drawn together in the central image in Revelation: that of the lamb 'standing as though slain' at the centre of scene of worship in 5:6. This compact, startling and paradoxical image holds together the whole range of theological ideas. Jesus has been slain for us, and carries the marks of that into the presence of God – but he now 'stands', having been raised. Though English translations struggle to express this, he is 'in the midst of the throne' and shares the throne with God, reigning and acting as one with the Father. He does so as the 'Lion of the tribe of Judah', Israel's hope, but also stands at the centre of the cosmos and the created order, represented by the four living creatures around the throne.
The unfolding picture of the heavenly temple in Revelation seems to mirror the earthly temple but, while it has an altar of incense (8:3) it has no altar of sacrifice, since the enthroned presence of God at the centre of the temple has now become the place of sacrifice. And the one who reigns from this sacrificial throne is the true Lord who deserves our worship as only he can bring the reign of peace that we long for.
The cross in Revelation is redemptive, purchasing for God a kingdom and priests from every nation; it is liberating as it sets us free from sin; it is victorious as it dethrones every power of evil; it is exemplary as the ultimate expression of the faithful witness to which we are all called; and it fulfils every purpose God has for his people and his creation. It forms us as a people of the cross, who live distinctive lives of holiness as we endure suffering in anticipation of the hope of the city from above which, when it comes down to earth, will be our dwelling place in God's intimate presence for all eternity.
This article first appeared in Preach Magazine and is used with permission.