Apocalypse” is the first word of the last book of the Christian Bible. It means “unveiling,” “disclosure,” or “revelation.” By starting with this word, John leads us to expect visions that tell secrets and divulge mysteries.
Revelation is the “unveiling of Jesus Christ.” It’s his unveiling because Jesus tells secrets. He gives John a glimpse of heaven, unmasks monsters and harlots, uncovers the bloody foundations of Babylon. Jesus is also the one unveiled. Jesus tells secrets, and secrets are told about him. He is subject and object of an apocalypse.
If Revelation is supposed to unveil Jesus, it seems an awfully lopsided book. “In Spirit” on the Lord’s day, John hears a voice, turns, and sees “one like a son of man”—Jesus in terrible, radiant glory. Yes, Jesus is unveiled, but it happens in the first chapter.
Again “in Spirit,” John is whisked to heaven, where he sees Jesus the Lion-Lamb of Judah take a book and open its seals. It’s another unveiling of Jesus, but this one happens in chapter 5. We’ve still got seventeen chapters to go.
Worse, after he opens the scroll, Jesus disappears for long stretches. Seven angels blow seven trumpets, but no Jesus. In the middle of the book (ch. 12), he makes a brief cameo as an infant, but then he goes missing again for several chapters.
John receives two more “in Spirit” visions, but they aren’t about Jesus at all. First he sees the fall of Babylon, the harlot city (chs. 17–19), then the bridal city Jerusalem descending from heaven (chs. 21–22). Jesus is in these visions, but the women upstage the male lead.
Revelation 1:8 points to a related structural imbalance. John quotes Daniel 7 (“behold he comes on the clouds”), a vision of the Son of Man receiving the dominion and authority of bestial empires. John tells us Revelation fulfills Daniel’s vision, but Jesus has received authority and dominion before the book starts. Why do we need the book at all?
If John wanted to write about the unveiling of Jesus, he jumped the gun. Revelation’s plot unravels before John gives it a chance to ravel. It’s Poirot solving the crime in chapter 2. It’s a joke that begins with the punch line.
That’s a misapprehension, but an illuminating one that opens up the deepest mysteries of Revelation.
Think about Revelation 1:8. John does see someone receiving a kingdom—not Jesus, but martyrs. They begin under the altar, ascend to Zion, then stand singing atop the firmament. In the end, they occupy thrones. Revelation fulfills Daniel 7, but with a twist. Jesus doesn’t become king when he takes his throne. Jesus comes into his kingdom when he confers it.
The same logic shapes Revelation as a “unveiling.” From beginning to end, the Apocalypse reveals Jesus. Early on, he’s unveiled as the Voice of God and as a Lamb slain yet standing. Jesus is also unveiled when Babylon falls and when the Bride descends from heaven.
But in the last two visionary sequences, Jesus isn’t unveiled in his own person. Babylon falls because she gets so drunk on martyr blood that she can’t stand upright anymore. Jesus himself is unveiled in disciples who share his sufferings.
Jerusalem’s descent is also an unveiling of Jesus, in his Bride. Paul says that the woman is the glory of the man (1 Cor. 11). Revelation shows us that this is true also of the man, Jesus. He shines with full glory only when he shares glory. For the Last Adam as for the first, it is not good for man to be alone.
After the opening chapters of Revelation, Jesus slips behind the curtain. He comes back on stage, but mostly in the guise of a company of martyrs and a bridal city. Jesus unveiled in suffering saints, Jesus made fully radiant in the radiance of his bride: That is the great secret of the Apocalypse.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.