The Book of Revelation: Paradoxical Symbolism

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

Revelation contains a lot of symbolism.  It is an allegorical work that requires much thought, knowledge of scripture and history and a spiritual state to understand.  It is the most difficult book in the entire Bible to decipher.  The early Church fathers debated greatly as to its status, whether canonical or apocryphal, such was its controversial nature.

Paradoxical symbolism refers to a seemingly contradictory representation of an object, or a person.  It is a reversal of expectations or nature.  These symbols often involve two statements where the first refers to something of a particular known nature related to or combined with another object of an opposite nature.  This is a literary device meant to highlight an important prophetic point.  It is not unique to Revelation.  It was a common device in prophetic language of the Near East and was not limited to the Revealed Religions.  It is not used in the Qur’an.  Thus here, we are trying to understand these signs from an Orthodox Christian perspective with some explanation on the differences with the Muslim understanding, if any.

Revelation Chapter 5, is a case in point:

Revelation 5:1-5
1And now I saw that he who sat on the throne carried in his right hand a scroll.  The inside of the page and the outside were both written on, and it was sealed with seven seals.  2And I saw an angel of sovereign strength, who was crying in a loud voice, “Who claims the right to open the book, and break the seals on it?”  3But there was no one in heaven, or on earth, or under the earth, who could open the scroll and have sight of it.  4I was all in tears, that none should be found worthy to open the scroll or have sight of it; 5until one of the elders said to me, “No need for tears; here is one who has gained the right to open the book, by breaking its seven seals, the Lion that comes from the tribe of Judah, from the stock of David.

It is one of the twenty-four elders in heaven who came to John of Patmos and revealed that it is the Lion of Judah.  This ‘Lion of Judah’ is found in the very first book of the Bible, Genesis:

Genesis 49:8-9
8“But thou, Judah, shalt win the praise of thy brethren; with thy hand on the necks of thy enemies, thou shalt be reverenced by thy own father’s sons.  9Judah is like a lion’s whelp; on the hills, my son, thou roamest after thy prey; like a lion couched in his lair, a lioness that none dares provoke.”

There is the added reference above of the ‘stock of David’.  This makes it clear from a Christian perspective that the elder is referring to Jesus of Nazareth, who was both from the tribe of Judah and claimed to be a spiritual descendant of David.  The Christians also claim that Jesus (a.s.) is the direct descendant of David (a.s.) though Joseph.

Matthew 1:1-17
1A record of the ancestry from which Jesus Christ, the son of David, son of Abraham, was born.  2Abraham was the father of Isaac, Isaac of Jacob, Jacob of Judah and his brethren; 3Judah of Phares and Zara, by Thamar; Phares of Esron, Esron of Aram, 4Aram of Aminadab, Aminadab of Naasson, Naasson of Salmon; 5Salmon of Booz, by Rahab; Booz of Obed, by Ruth; Obed of Jesse; 6and Jesse was the father of king David.  And king David was the father of Solomon, by her that had been the wife of Urias.  7Solomon was the father of Roboam, Roboam of Abias, Abias of Asa, 8Asa of Josaphat, Josaphat of Joram, Joram of Ozias, 9Ozias of Joatham, Joatham of Achaz, Achaz of Ezechias, 10Ezechias of Manasses, Manasses of Amon, Amon of Josias; 11and Josias was the father of Jechonias and his brethren, at the time of the removal to Babylon.  12And after the removal to Babylon, Jechonias was the father of Salathiel, Salathiel of Zorobabel, 13Zorobabel of Abiud, Abiud of Eliacim, Eliacim of Azor, 14Azor of Sadoc, Sadoc of Achim, Achim of Eliud, 15Eliud of Eleazar, Eleazar of Mathan, Mathan of Jacob, 16and Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary; it was of her that Jesus was born, who is called Christ.  17Thus there are fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the captivity in Babylon, and fourteen from the captivity in Babylon to Christ.

This does contradict the Christian assertion that Jesus (a.s.) is begotten not made but they see no dichotomy in it.  From a Muslim point of view, the genealogical descent from the House of David through Joseph is rejected since the Qur’an states explicitly that he is of virgin birth and there is no mention in all the sirah of a ‘Joseph’.  Muslim commentators believe that he is retroactive addition to ‘fulfill’ the Prophecy of David.

She said, “How shall I have a son, seeing that no man has touched me, and I am not unchaste?” (Surah Maryam:20)

Based on what John of Patmos had been told, we are led to expect Jesus (a.s.) depicted as a lion, the conqueror.  But it is not the case.

Revelation 5:6
6Then I saw, in the midst, where the throne was, amid the four figures and the elders, a Lamb standing upright, yet slain (as I thought) in sacrifice.  He had seven horns, and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God, that go out to do his bidding everywhere on earth.

This represents Jesus’ (a.s.) resurrection, as the Christians believe, since the Lamb stands.  This juxtaposition of the Lion and the Lamb is wholly in line with the Christian theme of conquest through submission and peace.  Here, Jesus (a.s.) is the Lion from the tribe of Judah who has conquered even death.  He has conquered by assuming a position of vulnerability, by serving as the sacrificial Lamb and slain in the vicarious sacrifice, and then raised again to stand despite this.

Matthew 5:3-4
3“Blessed are the poor in spirit; the kingdom of heaven is theirs.  4Blessed are the patient; they shall inherit the land.

Later, John of Patmos saw a great multitude of people around the throne in heaven, wearing white robes:

Revelation 7:9
9And then I saw a great multitude, past all counting, taken from all nations and tribes and peoples and languages.  These stood before the throne in the Lamb’s presence, clothed in white robes, with palm-branches in their hands.

Then one of the twenty-four elders spoke to him:

Revelation 7:13-15
13And now one of the elders turned to me, and asked, “Who are they, and whence do they come, these who are robed in white?”  14“My Lord,” said I, “thou canst tell me.”  “These,” he said, “have come here out of the great affliction; they have washed their robes white in the blood of the Lamb.  15And now they stand before God’s throne, serving him day and night in his temple; the presence of him who sits on the throne shall overshadow them.

We have been asked to envision a multitude of people from all nations in white robes.  We are told that their robes are white because they had washed them in blood, as opposed to water.  Water would have been the symbol of baptism.  Whereas white symbolizes purity, the washing in blood here specifically refers to the blood of the Lamb, again a reference to the vicarious sacrifice.

As for the people in white:

Revelation 19:18
7“Let us rejoice and triumph and give him the praise; the time has come for the wedding-feast of the Lamb.  His bride has clothed herself in readiness for it; 8hers it is to wear linen of shining white; the merits of the saints are her linen.

We know now, that they are the saints, the martyrs who have died for their faith.  This is their washing of their robes in the blood of the Lamb, they have been annihilated in the shedding of Christ’s blood on the Cross.

In Chapter 19, John sees Jesus (a.s.) on a white horse in heaven:

Revelation 19:11-14
11Then, in my vision, heaven opened, and I saw a white horse appear.  Its rider bore for his title, the Faithful, the True; he judges and goes to battle in the cause of right.  12His eyes were like flaming fire, and on his brow were many royal diadems; the name written there is one that only he knows.  13He went clad in a garment deep dyed with blood, and the name by which he is called is the Word of God; 14the armies of heaven followed him, mounted on white horses, and clad in linen, white and clean.

Here is another juxtaposition of blood and white linen, a fetish of the writer.  We already know from the earlier passages that the armies of heaven have been washed in the blood of the Lamb because of the white linen.  It is normally expected that a conqueror riding on a horse, a martial symbolism, would have his robe has stained by the blood of his enemies but in keeping with the symbolism, it is understood that Jesus’ (a.s.) robe has been dipped in his own blood, not that of his slain enemies.

Luke 22:20
20And so with the cup, when supper was ended, “This cup,” he said, “is the new testament, in my blood which is to be shed for you.

John of Patmos further added to his description of Jesus (a.s.):

Revelation 19:15
15From his mouth came a two-edged sword, ready to smite the nations; he will herd them like sheep with a crook of iron.  He treads out for them the wine-press, whose wine is the avenging anger of almighty God.

This is paradoxical since conquerors do not carry their swords in their mouths.  Since Jesus’ (a.s.) sword issues from his mouth, then it is metaphorical.

Revelation 19:13
13He went clad in a garment deep dyed with blood, and the name by which he is called is the Word of God.

Paul of Tarsus wrote:

Ephesians 6:17
17Make the helmet of salvation your own, and the sword of the spirit, God’s word.

And in his letter to the Hebrews:

Hebrews 4:12
12God’s word to us is something alive, full of energy; it can penetrate deeper than any two-edged sword, reaching the very division between soul and spirit, between joints and marrow, quick to distinguish every thought and design in our hearts.

Jesus’ (a.s.) sword, the sword of his mouth, is the word of God.  That is also his title in Revelation.  Jerome of Stridon, of the doctors of the Church wrote in his Homilies on the Psalms, on Revelation, which he refers to as the Apocalypse of John, “Out of his mouth came forth a sharp two-edged sword.”  The word of his teachings is a two-edged sword  that slays adversaries and defends his faithful.  The clear message is that Jesus (a.s.) does not come to conquer through violence but through preaching and living the word of God.

John of Patmos then described the battle between the beast, the false prophet, and the kings of the earth who were gathered to make war on Jesus (a.s.) and his followers:

Revelation 19: 19-21
19And then I saw the beast and the kings of the earth muster their armies, to join battle with the rider on the white horse and the army which followed him.  20The beast was made prisoner, and with it the false prophet that did miracles in its presence, deluding all those who bore the beast’s mark and worshipped its image; and both were thrown alive into the fiery lake that burns with brimstone.  21All the rest were slain by the sword of that horseman, the sword that comes from his mouth; and all the birds feasted on the carrion, and had their fill.

The beast of Revelation is closely identified with the pagan Roman empire and its emperors who persecuted and martyred Christians.  The forces of paganism were defeated and the empire converted and became Christian.  The passage quoted immediately precedes the thousand-year reign of Christ and the saints.  Catholic thinkers such as Augustine of Hippo have identified this as the present period, in which Christ and his saints reign in heaven and through the Church on earth through the Church Militant and Church Triumphant.

Revelations 20:1-6
1I saw, too, an angel come down from heaven, with the key of the abyss in his hand, and a great chain.  2He made prisoner of the dragon, serpent of the primal age, whom we call the devil, or Satan, and put him in bonds for a thousand years, 3thrusting him down to the abyss and locking him in there, and setting a seal over him.  He was not to delude the world any more until the thousand years were over; then, for a short time, he is to be released.  4Then I saw thrones prepared for those to whom judgement was committed; I saw the souls of all those who went to execution for love of the truth concerning Jesus, and of God’s word, and all who would not worship the beast, or its image, or bear its mark on their foreheads and their hands.  These were endowed with life, and reigned as kings with Christ for a thousand years; 5but the rest of the dead remained lifeless while the thousand years lasted.  Such is the first resurrection.  6Blessed and holy is his lot who has a share in this first resurrection; over such the second death has no power, they will be priests of God, priests of Christ; all those thousand years they will reign with him.

This is thought to happen not through physical conquest, but through the preaching of the word of God, the sword that issued from Jesus’ (a.s.) mouth.  It was also through the blood of the martyrs that brought conversion to the empire.  It is interpreted here that the forces against God are destroyed by the sword, but the sword that destroys them is immaterial.

From a Muslim perspective, however, we reject the anthropomorphic vision of God.  And we, of course, reject the idea of his death and resurrection since that contradicts our scripture.  We can accept that there are elements here that are congruent with our understanding of Jesus (a.s.) and his role as a prophet.  Overall, however, if I were still a Catholic, I would still hold the opinion that Revelation should have been considered apocryphal.


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