Every great story has a masterful ending. The magnificent story told in the Bible from Genesis to Revelation has the greatest ending of all.
Our main problem is teasing that ending out of Revelation, the most complicated book of the Bible to read. Before we get to that wonderful conclusion, a primer on how Revelation works is in order.
I should begin with what Revelation is not, as improper readings of this last book of the Bible have led to a lot of bad theology in recent years. It is not a type of literature otherwise familiar to us in Western culture—in fact, this type of literature existed among Jews and early Christians for just four centuries, from about 200 B.C. to about A.D. 200.
We now call this type of literature “apocalyptic,” and we know it does not follow what the Western world considers the normal structure of a story. For example, our stories tend to follow chronological order, with the exception of an occasional flashback to reveal details from the past, or some foreshadowing to hint at what is to come.
Time is not an important feature of apocalyptic literature. An event may be described once and then described from a different perspective later in the text.
Also, apocalyptic literature is highly figurative, where Western literature is by default quite literal, with forays into figurative language usually easy to detect. All of the resulting symbolism in apocalyptic literature functions in part like a code; for example, numbers and creatures usually point to something else, like the concept of completeness or a particular empire.
The people who wrote apocalyptic literature were heavily oppressed, and didn’t want others to understand immediately what they were saying. So, if you try to read Revelation chronologically and literally, you’re going to make a lot of mistakes, errant conclusions the letter’s original audience would never have made.
But enough of the primer. With all of that in mind, let’s look at that glorious story’s end.
Scattered through Revelation are images of humanity and God in full reunion, thanks to Christ’s infinitely powerful work on the cross. They are like snapshots of what is to come.
These images resolve the problem that arises early in Genesis. There, we see God’s desire for a relationship with his creation, and we see that relationship broken by willful disobedience, the kind of sin we all have committed at one time or another.
The rest of the Old Testament can be seen broadly as God’s efforts to woo humans back to holiness and a full relationship with their maker. The Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John) in the New Testament reveal to us how God ultimately succeeded: He took on human form among us as Jesus Christ, becoming a sinless sacrifice to atone for our sins.
Christ’s resurrection is proof the plan worked. All we have to do is believe.
Those reunion images in Revelation are designed to give us great hope, reminding us that what is to come is so much better than what we experience now. One of those snapshots, found in the seventh chapter, beginning at verse 9, gives us a picture of eternal, ongoing worship, a glorious celebration of what has been accomplished by Christ, depicted as the Lamb.
The author of Revelation, known only as John, said that in one of his visions “there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands.” He went on to describe the praise and singing by both the redeemed humans and the creatures of heaven.
He also gave us a hint of what we should be doing now, as we exist in the part of the story where we now live, a time of tribulation and ordeals brought about by evil’s death throes. In a conversation with one of these heavenly beings, John is told that those clothed in white “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.”
In more literal language, they symbolize the people from around the world who follow Christ as Lord and Savior. Yes, salvation is freely available, but this washing of robes symbolizes our need to pursue this relationship, to grow in our faith and live as people who believe.
As the Apostle Paul writes in the second chapter of Philippians, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”
Every individual Christian story intersects with God’s great story, leading to the same glorious ending.