TED GRIMSRUD. To Follow the Lamb: A Peaceable Reading of the Book of Revelation. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2022. Pp. 278. $34.00 US.
Over the years, several friends or church acquaintances have told me, “I don’t read the book of Revelation because it’s too violent.” But now I can recommend to them a book whose title insists that Revelation is actually “peaceable”!
To Follow the Lamb is a readable commentary on Revelation in which years of thought and reflection are evident. Ted Grimsrud begins by tracing his own journey of conversion into a fundamentalist belief system that included a “predictive” interpretation of Revelation, such as used in Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth. Along the way, he began to notice strong similarities between Jesus Christ in the book of Revelation (see 1:1) and the Jesus of our Gospels. “I make the case verse by verse,” he says, “for reading Revelation as a peace book” (15). His readers are constantly exhorted to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes” because of his consistent “nonviolent resistance to evil” and his “persevering love.”
Grimsrud offers three options for a reading strategy for Revelation. One is to view it as “future-prophetic.” Readers look for clues in the text about “what must soon take place” (1:1), i.e., Revelation is predicting the future of our modern world.
A second option is “historical-symbolic,” more typical of mainstream theology, which focuses on “apocalypse”—the Greek word for “revelation.” Apocalyptic writing is “a distinctive genre of literature that flourished in the ancient Near East” just before and around the time of Jesus (22). Revelation is read in relation to other apocalyptic literature of that age rather than integrating it with other New Testament writings.
Grimsrud prefers a third option. He asserts that the “Jesus Christ” of Revelation 1:1 is the same person as the Jesus of the Gospels and “should be read in the context of the New Testament and broader biblical story of salvation” (23). In order not to overstress Revelation’s distinctive apocalyptic nature, he interprets its many symbols primarily in their immediate literary contexts. For example, in 1:16, a “two-edged sword comes out of Jesus’s mouth.” This implies the power of his spoken word rather than the violence of a physical sword.
The commentary is structured clearly, with each chapter dealing with one chapter (or unit) from Revelation. Grimsrud exegetes that text carefully, followed by his own theological reflections on its themes. Each chapter closes with discussion questions useful for personal or group study.
Grimsrud underlines how Revelation is rooted in history. Before his exile on Patmos, the book’s author John was a leader among the seven churches of Asia (now western Turkey). In his vision he sees an authoritative Jesus, who asks him to write messages to these churches. The churches live within the Roman Empire and must constantly choose to whom to give their highest loyalty: to the Roman Emperor or to Jesus? Grimsrud sees these messages as the context for all the visions that follow. And as we proceed through this commentary, he relates issues of empire and political loyalty to the “American empire” as well.
Grimsrud agrees with most commentators that the key to Revelation is found in chapters 4 and 5. In John’s vision, the elder is invited into heaven where he sees a throne (symbol of ultimate power) where an unnamed One holds a scroll sealed with seven seals, surrounded by worshippers. But none is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll, until one of the elders tells John the Lion of Judah alone is worthy. Then John sees a Lamb “standing as if it had been slaughtered.” The Lamb takes the scroll, and all of heaven celebrates in one of the majestic worship services that happen throughout this apocalypse.
The following chapters record the drama of the opened seals. In the chaos of political life then and now, the text calls readers to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes,” for victory only comes through “nonviolent resistance” and “persevering love.” The theme of “blood” throughout these chapters represents Jesus’s blood and becomes a symbol of nonresistance to evil.
Evil and domination in these episodes are personified as the Dragon, the Beast, and the False Prophet in their various relations to each other. By Revelation 19, as the plot builds up to a final battle, Grimsrud calls it “the war that’s not a war” (212-223). At its beginning, the Rider on a white horse has the same “sword coming out of his mouth” and is already clothed in a robe wet with his own blood. Without a physical battle, the Dragon, Beast, and False Prophet will be destroyed in the lake of fire. The book climaxes with majestic descriptions of the New Jerusalem.
I found this commentary very personable and inviting. I strongly affirm its interpretation of the Lamb’s nonviolent resistance to domination as the only method for ultimate victory. Yet I remain puzzled by one strong theme throughout Grimsrud’s narrative. He insists that, after the above spiritual forces are destroyed, the “nations” themselves, including “the kings of the earth,” will survive. They will go in and out of the open doors of the New Jerusalem and will be healed by the leaves of the Tree of Life (Rev. 21:24-22:2).
It’s there in the text—but how does this happen? Do all the nations repent? What about 21:8 and 22:15, where all kinds of evildoers, including murderers and all liars, will stay outside of the city and go to the lake of fire? And if Jesus asks members of the seven churches to repent of divided loyalties in Revelation 2 and 3, why not call for repentance from the Beast’s followers? The author never discusses that question. Aside from this unsolved issue, I recommend this radically “peaceable reading” of Revelation!