Revelation contains many symbols. Some of them are easy to understand, some are hard, and some are just paradoxical.
Ironically, the paradoxical ones can be particularly easy to figure out.
Here’s what you should know . . .
1. What Is a Paradoxical Symbol?
A paradoxical symbol, as I am using the term, is one in which Revelation symbolizes something in a surprising and--at first glance--contradictory way. It involves a reversal of expectations.
These symbols often involve two statements, the first of which sets up certain expectations on the part of the reader and the second which reverses these expectations.
You can see them as a pair of two, seemingly contrary symbols that must be understood together to have a true picture of what is meant.
The best way to explain this is by looking at examples . . .
2. The Lion That Is a Lamb
In Revelation 5, one of the twenty-four elders in heaven comes to John, who is weeping because no one can open the scroll that reveals God's will. The elder says:
"Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals" [Rev. 5:5].
This draws on symbolism from the book of Genesis where Israel's son Judah is described as a "young lion" (Genesis 49:9).
The added specification of "the Root of David" makes it clear that the elder is referring to Jesus, the Messiah, who was both from the tribe of Judah and a descendant of David.
We are told that the lion "has conquered," enabling him to open the scroll.
Based on what John has been told, he (and the reader) could expect him to turn and see Jesus depicted in the form of a lion, a violent, deadly beast who "has conquered"—possibly with bloody claws and fangs.
But when he turns, John sees something very different:
And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth [Rev. 5:6].
Instead of a conquering lion, John sees a lamb that is "standing, as though it had been slain."
It is not a powerful, ravening predator with dripping claws and fangs but a weak, vulnerable prey animal that has been mortally wounded.
And yet it stands. This represents Jesus' resurrection (the Lamb stands) in spite of the fact that he was crucified ("had been slain").
Here we have a paradox--a juxtaposition of two seemingly contradictory symbols:
- The Lion: The dangerous predator that conquers (overcomes its prey)
- The Lamb: The vulnerable prey that is slain (overcome by its conquerors)
To fully understand this symbolism, we have to embrace both images.
It is true that Jesus is a Lion from the tribe of Judah. He has conquered.
But the way he has done these things is surprising and involves a reversal of expectations: He has conquered by assuming a position of vulnerability, by serving as the Lamb, and being slain--and raised again to stand despite this.
This is not the only symbol in Revelation of this type.
3. White Robes That Should Be Red
Later in Revelation, John sees a great multitude of people around God's Throne in heaven, who are wearing white robes:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no man could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands [7:9].
Then one of the twenty-four elders comes to him and says:
"Who are these, clothed in white robes, and whence have they come?" [7:13].
"Sir, you know."
And he said to me, "These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" [7:14].
Here there are definite expectations set up. We've been asked to envision a multitude of people from all nations in white robes. Then we are told the reason that their robes are white: "They have washed their robes and made them white."
The ordinary expectation would be that they have been washed in water--the usual thing we wash garments in to make them clean and white again.
Water would even be an expected symbol, based on baptism.
But then our expectations are reversed when we are told that these robes were washed in blood!
Washing a robe in blood would make it red, not white!
And so we we have a paradox--a juxtaposition of two seemingly contradictory symbols:
- The robes that have been made white by washing
- The blood of the Lamb that should have made them red rather than white
As before, we need to embrace both of these symbols in order to understand what Revelation means.
It is true that the saints "wear white robes"--their sins have been removed (forgiven) and they have done righteous deeds (cf. Rev. 19:8).
But the means by which these things are done (by which their robes are made white) is the shedding of Christ's blood on the Cross, by "the blood of the Lamb."
4. Whose Blood?
Another example of a paradoxical symbol in Revelation is found in chapter 19, where John sees one of the most intense sights in the entire book, when he sees Jesus on a white horse in heaven:
Then I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse! He who sat upon it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he judges and makes war.
He is clad in a robe dipped in blood, and the name by which he is called is The Word of God.
And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, followed him on white horses [19:11, 13-14].
Here, once again, we have an interesting juxtaposition of blood and white linen.
We’ve already been given the key to why the followers of Jesus have white robes: They have been washed in the blood of the Lamb.
That likely tells us something about the blood in which Jesus’ own robe has been dipped.
Whose blood is it?
The expected thing, for a conqueror riding on a horse, would be that his robe has been stained by the blood of the enemies he has killed.
But in keeping with the paradoxical blood/white robe symbolism that has already been set up in the book, a different answer is suggested.
Jesus’ robe has been dipped in his own blood, not that of his slain enemies.
Indeed, thus far his enemies have not been slain . . .
5. The Sword That Is a Word
John’s description of Jesus isn’t finished, though. He then writes:
From his mouth issues a sharp sword with which to smite the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron; he will tread the wine press of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty [19:15].
This also is paradoxical. Conquerors normally don’t carry their swords in their mouths. They carry them in their hands (or, at least, in a scabbard strapped to their bodies).
But Jesus’ sword issues from his mouth. That tells us that it isn’t the usual kind of sword.
What is it?
Remember that John has already seen that Jesus is called by the name “The Word of God” (v. 13, above).
Back in Ephesians, St. Paul wrote:
And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God [Eph. 6:17].
And in Hebrews, we read:
The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword [Heb. 4:12].
That suggests that Jesus’ sword, the sword of his mouth, is not a literal, physical sword at all.
It’s the word of God.
Jesus is even named “the Word of God” in this same passage (v. 13)!
St. Jerome notes:
We read in the Apocalypse of John . . . “Out of his mouth came forth a sharp two-edged sword.” . . .
It is a two-edged sword, namely, the word of his teachings. . . .
It is a two-edged sword that slays adversaries and at the same time defends his faithful [Homilies on the Psalms 59].
Again, we have two images that must be held together to understand the symbolism:
- Jesus’ mouth—a mouth being something that his word would proceed from
- The sword that proceeds from it—a sword being a means of conquest
The message is: Jesus doesn’t conquer through physical violence. He conquers through the word of God.
6. How the Battle Is Won
John then sees the battle between the beast, the false prophet, and the kings of the earth who were gathered to make war on Jesus and his followers:
And I saw the beast and the kings of the earth with their armies gathered to make war against him who sits upon the horse and against his army.
And the beast was captured, and with it the false prophet who in its presence had worked the signs by which he deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped its image.
These two were thrown alive into the lake of fire that burns with sulphur.
And the rest were slain by the sword of him who sits upon the horse, the sword that issues from his mouth; and all the birds were gorged with their flesh [19:19-21].
But they didn’t do this forever. The forces of pagan persecution were overcome, and the empire converted and became Christian.
The passage quoted immediately precedes the thousand-year reign of Christ and the saints (20:1-6), which Catholic thinkers such as St. Augustine have identified as the present period, in which Christ and his saints reign in heaven and through the Church on earth.
How did that happen?
It was not through physical conquest.
It was through the preaching of the word of God—through the sword that issues from Jesus’ mouth.
It was also through the blood of the martyrs, who like Jesus suffered martyrdom that brought conversion to the empire.
And so we we have a paradox—a juxtaposition of two seemingly contradictory symbols:
- The forces against God are destroyed by the sword
- But the sword that destroys them is not material but is the word of God
Furthermore, the word of God is not intended to kill (though you will hurt yourself if you violate it) but to heal, to convert the enemies of Christ into his friends, if they will only cooperate and respond to his message.
7. Other Interpretations?
The thoughts I have offered here are not, of course, the only way to look at the book of Revelation.
There are other ways—many of them!
But having an understanding of the paradoxical symbols in the book and how they work can shed new light on otherwise perplexing passages.
What do you think?
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