Where is the Cross found in the Book of Revelation?

Any discussion of ‘the cross’ in the Book of Revelation immediately faces a substantial challenge: in contrast with almost every other book in the New Testament, it is barely mentioned at all overtly. Its solitary explicit appearance comes in an extended prophetic narrative in chapter 11: the bodies of the ‘two witnesses’ will ‘lie in the public square of the great city, which is figuratively called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified’ (11.8). The identification of the place in this way has led some to suppose that ‘the great city’ was John’s oblique way of referring to Jerusalem. But it is very hard to think of Jerusalem as the city that ‘rules over the kings of the earth’ (17.18) who made all the merchants of the world rich (18.19). Identifying it as a place of sin and debauchery (‘Sodom’) and a place of slavery for God’s people from which they would be liberated in exodus (‘Egypt’) points to it as being the jurisdiction of Rome—by whose power Jesus was put on the cross. The crucifixion is therefore here described as exemplary: just as Jesus suffered and died on the cross, so his faithful followers, bearing prophetic witness after the pattern of Moses and Elijah, will also suffer and be killed. But like their Lord, they too will experience the victory of resurrection life in defiance of their enemies, and this will lead some to repentance (11.11–12).

This single example highlights the complexity of analyzing Revelation for theological themes—a complexity which puts many ordinary readers off engaging with it. Despite the widespread view that the text relates to some future ‘end time’ (which, remarkably, is always just about to happen), John makes it clear that he is writing a letter to his first century contemporaries living in the province of Asia, the Western end of what we now call Turkey. This is clear from the epistolary language in 1.4–5 and 1.9 as well as the closing remarks in 22.8 and 22.21. It is evident in the local details within the messages to the assemblies in the seven cities, most strikingly in the language of ‘hot, cold and lukewarm’ (3.14) to those living in Laodicea whose lukewarm water supply contrasted with the hot water of Hierapolis (Pummukale) lying on the opposite side of the Lycus River, and the cold water of Colossae further along the valley. But it can also be seen in the practices of devotion to the emperor which find their way into the scenes of heavenly worship in numerous ways, and the descriptions of calamity brought by the four horsemen of chapter 6—warfare, conquest, famine, disease and death—which were very familiar in the first century world, and have in fact been throughout history.[1]

In its first word, Revelation also calls itself an ‘apocalypse’—a lifting of the cover so that we can see what is really happening—and a ‘prophecy’ (1.3), not so much meaning that it predicts the future (though there is plenty of eschatology in it) but that it offers God’s perspective and reality on a world that otherwise might look quite different to the human eye.

A wide range of ideas about Jesus are introduced in the epistolary greeting of 1.5–7, and many of these relate to Jesus’ death on the cross.

First, the appellation ‘Christ’ (which occurs seven times in the book) appears to function as a name here, but it also stands alone elsewhere (11.15, 12.10, 20.4, 6) which suggests it has not lost its force as signifying ‘the one anointed by God’. This title is immediately followed by the description of Jesus as ‘faithful witness’; although the language of witness (martusmartyria) has a forensic sense of testimony in the context of trial, it quickly becomes associated with losing one’s life as a result of adherence to the faith, in 6.9, 11.8 and 12.11. John is here portraying Jesus’ death on the cross as the result of his faithfulness as God’s anointed one, a pattern of faithfulness in a hostile world which believers are urged to follow.[2]This fits both with the language of Paul in Phil 2.8 (‘he was obedient to death’) and of Jesus in his description of discipleship in Mark 8.34 (‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me’). The pioneering nature of his resurrection is expressed in the phrase ‘firstborn from the dead’.

In the second part of 1.5, Jesus’ death is described using the metonym ‘blood’, which occurs again in this way in 5.9, 7.14 and 12.11 and offers some key insights into the meaning of Jesus’ death.[3]In this verse, Jesus’ death is a sign of his love for us—a muted note in Revelation, mentioned only elsewhere in 3.9 and 20.9. Being set ‘free from sin’ is an important idea in Paul’s theology (see Rom 6.18–22, 8.2 and Gal 5.1) though John uses a different Greek word for ‘free’. It also connects with the Exodus motif that is found throughout Revelation; our freedom from sin by the death of Jesus is analogous to the freeing of Israel from Egypt, protected by the blood of the Passover lamb. The Passover connection continues in John’s exposition of the goal of this liberation—‘to be a kingdom and priests to serve [him]’, an adapted quotation from Ex 19.6. Most commentators see the following combination of Dan 7.13 and Zech 12.10 in Rev 1.7 as a reference to Jesus’ return (his so-called ‘second coming’). But in Dan 7, the ‘coming of the Son of Man’ is a description of this figure coming tothe throne of the Ancient of Days from the earth, not the other way around. So here and in Matt 24.30 (the only other place where these verses are combined) this must be a reference to Jesus’ exaltation and ascension to God’s right hand; the priestly task of those he has set free from sin is to proclaim him as Lord and lead the whole world to the ‘mourning’ of repentance.

In the second reference to ‘blood’ in 5.9–10, we again find the connection with the Ex 19.6 language of ‘kingdom and priests’. The notion of Jesus’ faithful witness is now adapted into him being ‘worthy’ to open the seals of the scroll, which looks very much like a first-century will document. Because Jesus has been faithful to death, he alone is the one who can reveal to us God’s purposes for his world and his people. The effect of Jesus’ blood is described in language of the agora, the marketplace, as Jesus has ‘purchased’ people for God, language that would include the manumission of slaves by paying the price of redemption. And those thus purchased have come from ‘every tribe and language and people and nation’, a phrase occurring seven times in the text, each time in a slightly different form (5.9, 7.9, 10.11, 11.9, 13.7, 14.6 and 17.15) which combines the covenant language of Ex 19.5 (‘out of every nation…’) with the creation language of Gen 10.31 (‘tribes, tongues, territories and nations’). The redemption found in Jesus’ death not only brings to a climax God’s intentions for his covenant people, it also fulfils God’s hopes for the whole of creation, as his grace flows out over the boundaries of one ethnic group to all the peoples of the world. This language already has a strong eschatological focus; this completion of both covenant and creation means that the redeemed will not be whisked to a heavenly bliss but will ‘reign on earth’, a promise expressed already in the messages to those in Thyatira, Philadelphia and Laodicea (2.26, 3.12, 3.21) and fulfilled in the final vision of the New Jerusalem in 22.5.

The third reference to ‘blood’ comes in the interlude of chapter 7, whose narrative function is to answer the question ‘Who can stand…?’ (6.17) in the light of the reality of the world and God’s coming judgement. In the first half of the chapter, John ‘hears’ the nation of Israel counted in a census preparing for warfare (compare Numbers 1.2–3) and their number is a square times a cube (12 x 12 x 10 x 10 x 10) signifying the holy presence of God in his world, just as the New Jerusalem is a square and a cube (21.15–17) imitating the shape of the Holy of Holies in the first temple (1 Kings 6.20). But then in 7.9 he turns to see those who have been counted, and this finite Jewish group turns out actually to be the innumerable redeemed from all of humanity. They have come through great ‘tribulation’ (thlipsis 7.14) just as John and his readers are already experiencing ‘tribulation’ (1.9)—which Paul tells us is the lot of all who seek the kingdom (Acts 14.22; compare Jesus’ teaching in Matt 5.11 and Mark 10.30). ‘Having washed their robes and made them white’ could suggest readiness for (spiritual) combat (compare 19.14) but it more usually signifies purity and holiness (as in 19.8; compare Is 1.18) that is granted to us through Jesus’ ‘blood’. It is the death of Jesus for us which give us the purity, holiness and honour signified by the wearing of white, and this alone which allows us to stand in the presence of God himself. And enduring suffering out of faithfulness to Jesus is the right and natural response to what he has done for us, not an attempt to win his favour.

The final reference to ‘blood’ comes in the pivotal chapter 12. Adapting the popular pagan myth of Leto, Python and Apollo, used by Roman emperors as imperial propaganda, John tells us that it is Jesus (and not Roman imperial power) who offers us true peace and prosperity, since in his death, resurrection and ascension (‘snatched up to God and his throne’ 12.5) he has finally defeated that dragon and snake Satan (‘the accuser’ 12.10) and dethroned him. This victory has been won ‘by the blood of the lamb’; it is Jesus’ sacrificial death which has brought about Satan’s defeat, so that he is ‘Christus victor’, a theme we find throughout the gospels (in anticipation in Luke 10.18 and John 12.31) and in Paul (Col 2.13–14, Rom 16.20). But once again we find the cosmic achievement of the death of Jesus intimately related to the response of believers in following his example: they (we) ‘triumph[ed] over him by the blood of the lamb and the word of their testimony, for they did not love their lives to much as to shrink from death’ (12.11).

These themes are drawn together in the central image in Revelation: that of the lamb ‘standing as though slain’ at the centre of scene of worship in 5.6. This compact, startling and paradoxical image holds together the whole range of theological ideas. Jesus has been slain for us, and carries the marks of that into the presence of God—but he now ‘stands’, having been raised. Though English translations struggle to express this, he is ‘in the midst of the throne’ and shares the throne with God, reigning and acting as one with the Father. He does so as the ‘Lion of the tribe of Judah’, Israel’s hope, but also stands at the centre of the cosmos and the created order, represented by the four living creatures around the throne. The unfolding picture of the heavenly temple in Revelation seems to mirror the earthly temple but, whilst it has an altar of incense (8.3) it has no altar of sacrifice, since the enthroned presence of God at the centre of the temple has now become the place of sacrifice. And the one who reigns from this sacrificial throne is the true Lord who deserves our worship as only he can bring the reign of peace that we long for.

The cross in Revelation is redemptive, purchasing for God a kingdom and priests from every nation; it is liberating as it sets us free from sin; it is victorious as it dethrones every power of evil; it is exemplary as the ultimate expression of the faithful witness to which we are all called; and it fulfils every purpose God has for his people and his creation. It forms us as a people of the cross, who live distinctive lives of holiness as we endure suffering in anticipation of the hope of the City from above which, when it comes down to earth, will be our dwelling place in God’s intimate presence for all eternity.

(This article is published in the current edition of Preach magazine; details can be found on its website here.)

[1]It is sobering to note that, following the slaughter of the Great War, the Spanish flu of 100 years ago infected one third of the world’s population.

[2]This is confirmed by the numerological patterns within the text. The name ‘Jesus’ occurs 14 times, which is 2 x 7. 2 is the number of true witness (see Deut 17.6) and 7 the number of completion, suggesting that 14 signifies Jesus is the perfect witness. ‘Spirit’ and ‘saints’ also occur 14 times.

[3]Some commentators see the ‘blood’ on the robe of the rider on the white horse in 19.13 as the rider’s (Jesus’) own blood, but this is unlikely in view of the parallel of 19.15 with 14.20.

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18 thoughts on “Where is the Cross found in the Book of Revelation?”

  1. I absolutely love this post. Such an expansive, yet succinct survey of the “wondrous cross” in Revelation “on which the Prince of glory died” in “bearing witness to the truth”.

    The holy intent of this piece must surely concur with Isaac Watts’ hymn: “Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”

    As much as anyone else reading this, I probably need to reflect and repent deeply concerning what that truly means.

    We need each other’s prayers.

  2. Hi Paul, it’s great to read this post – generally for the excellent content of the whole piece, and specifically for your summary of what’s going on in the prophetic narrative in chapter 11.

    I recently wrote a blog piece on “The Two Witnesses of Revelation 11”. Whilst my interpretation of the scene rang true to me and I was sure that the major points I was drawing out from it were Biblical, there was just a little bit of discomfort that I hadn’t done a search for others saying the same to validate what I was seeing.

    I’m therefore grateful to come across your blog piece and to know you see it essentially the same way.

    Can I ask, is the interpretation you’ve outlined well understood and well received? Do you have links to sources you’d recommend reading on that passage (and on Revelation).

    If you have time, I’d be grateful if you’d have a glance at my blog post. All feedback is welcome. (Rather than clutter your comments section with my links, I think you should be able to see my blog web address in my comment submission. But please let me know if you can’t and want to.) I’ve today left a comment on my blog post pointing to your post here, highlighting the relevant excerpt.

    Best wishes,


    • Hi Paul,

      I read your post and. for the most part, I agree. However, I would contend that, although the lampstands refer to the churches, it is only applicable as they follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

      As you’re aware, the metaphor of the olive-trees and lamp-stands was introduced by the Old Testament prophet, Zechariah (see Zechariah 4).

      In ancient times, the seven-branched lamp-stand was prescribed by God as lighting on the route in the temple towards God’s holy presence.

      However, whereas those lamps needed to be replenished regularly with olive oil, these witnesses, the Law (represented by Moses) and the Prophets (represented by Elijah), deliver their constant light through a direct and inexhaustible fuel source, the olive trees themselves, which is representative of the Holy Spirit.

      As a whole, I would suggest that, while the metaphor is applicable to the churches (Rev. 1:20), this is only applicable as they follow the wisdom and insight, which is inexhaustibly replenished by the Holy Spirit through the witness of the Law and the Prophets, pointing us to Jesus Christ.

      The threat of the lampstands being removed (Rev. 2:5) distinguishes them from the visible church. It is reminder that darkness will engulf any church (or Christian) that, like Ephesus, does not, in the face of religious hostility, heed Christ’s warning to regain their nascent spiritual zeal. (Rev. 2:2-3; also, cf. 2 Pet. 2:20-22)

      • Thanks, David, for taking the time to read and comment. I see your point about the character and quality of the church being described here – I.e. that there witness to Christ comes through the Holy Spirit, as per Jesus promise of the Holy Spirit’s empowerment to be his witnesses.

    • Hi Paul

      The writer would, I think, have been far more specific and historical in what he meant:

      To take 4 things mentioned in ch11:
      There was in his day a pair of famous figures whose bodies were left to lie in the street.
      The outer courts were in his day divided from the rest of the temple
      There was a slaughter that saw 7000-8500 dead
      This coincided with an earthquake.

      But – get this – all of the above 4 happened on the same day and location around Feb 68.

      (And also at the same time as the likeliest referents for the start/finish points of the other ‘three-and-a-half’ events mentioned in chs 11-13.)

      One can say all this is coincidence – but would that not be a strain?

      Flattening off and universalising will inevitably happen in biblical interpretation anyway, but there is the danger that it can obscure the intention of the writer.

      • Hi Christopher,
        Thanks for taking the time to read and comment. I’ve got some questions for you, but don’t want to start an off-topic conversation on Ian’s blog post. If you are happy to post your comment on my blog, I’ll interact with you there.
        Best wishes,

        • Paul: Christopher and I read the text differently. I am not persuading by his view that there is a ‘literal’ correspondence with events; like you, I want to read intertextually and theologically, since that is what the text appears to be offering itself as.

        • Yes – I am definitely in the minority here among students of all stripes. There has been lively internet (and early-modern) discussion of possible historical referents. I do think (well, I would) that in most cases the arguments are comparatively stronger and also little examined in commentaries (minorities sometimes arise because the case has not yet been examined much). Gentry’s study ‘Before Jerusalem Fell’ (among others) is strong, although much of what I hold is not in Gentry. At any rate I am always happy to argue the case. What is important is that different interpretative possibilities are simultaneously in view and then weighed against each other for likelihood: for internal coherence, and for coherence with the work as a whole.

          It is a great discipline for someone wanting to read up on something to choose deliberately a selection of reading-matter that ends up coming to diverse conclusions (David Watson deliberately did that) and it helps the thinking process.

          • (…though the intertextual and theological dimensions also remain as important as ever – but I do always start with the historical because I find it the best way of being accurate about the resultant theology. Theology and application I see as the final step[s] in the process.)

    • Hi Ian, sorry I meant address my earlier comment to “Ian”, not “Paul”.

      I gather from Peter’s comment below that you written a book on Revelation. I must look it up.

      Best wishes,


    • Hi Paul (or should I say Hi Koshy!).

      Yes, I have written the IVP commentary on Revelation; information about it can be found on the home page of the blog.

      I think I would agree with many of your inter texts–but I would want to discern between those which appear to have some actual verbal links (as with ‘trampling’ which is also found in Luke 19, and the connections with Moses and Elijah) and others which have similar theological themes but no actual verbal links.

      It is also interesting to note that the first half of the narrative is in future tense, and is actually the speech of the angel, but the second half appears more to be vision description and is in the past (aorist) tense.

      This is what I say in the commentary as a theology/summary of the passage:

      ‘Three of the most important theological questions to ask are ‘What time is it?’, ’Where are we?’ and ‘Who am I?’ In this second part of the second interlude, through complex allusions to a wide range of Old Testament texts, this part of John’s vision report addresses these questions.

      First, this is the ‘time of the nations’ or ‘gentiles’, in that it appears as though God’s people (as his temple, his dwelling place on earth) are being trampled just as the Jerusalem temple was trampled by the power of Rome. Yet it is also a time of preservation and protection, since the inner part of the temple – the spiritual heart of God’s people – enjoys his presence and assurance.

      Secondly, this is a transitional time of journeying, since God’s people are travelling from one station to another, having been set free from slavery (enslaved not by Egypt but by sin, Rev. 1:5) but having not yet entered the promised land of dwelling in the full presence of God which is the constant hope on the horizon in every section of Revelation.

      Thirdly, by a clever numerical identification, this journeying of 42 ‘stages’ is also the time of tribulation anticipated in the visions of Daniel.

      This is a time for God’s people of maintaining the true worship of God by refusing to compromise their allegiance and instead fulfilling their calling to be a kingdom of priests. It is a time to offer prophetic testimony to God, just as the prophets before them had done so even though they too had suffered oppression. It is a time in which the nations gloat over their failure and even death, and yet a time when they experience God’s resurrection power. Although they are a small, vulnerable group, in their faithfulness they follow the example of their Lord and so experience both crucifixion and resurrection as he did. By delaying identification of the third woe, John is confirming that the first two woes (and the series of plagues in which they are embedded) are not a future scenario of judgement, but a reality that already exists. The third woe stretches from the present into the future, and includes the challenge of faithfulness that confronts God’s people.

      By contrast, the ‘great city’ representing Roman imperial power is not the ‘eternal city’ as was consistently claimed, but a human institution like all others that went before it – subject to the judgement of God as they had been. The true eternal city is the one that God’s people are already beginning to inhabit, as yet hidden but which will be revealed in the visions of Rev. 21–22.’

      You will have to buy the commentary now!

      • Hi Ian,
        I’m grateful for your reply and perspectives on the intextual and theological reading of the text, the point about verbal links, and for sharing the extract from your commentary, which I appreciated reading.

        By the way, congratulations on much-deserved award recognising your blog.

        Best wishes,


  3. Thank you, Ian, it’s great how you have drawn all those threads together.

    I was intrigued as to the why the question was asked in the first place and to which you gave this answer. I wonder if it is partly an overemphasis on an ecclesiastical and sacerdotal view of the Christian faith. I understand that the use of the cross as a symbol and its development into a religious icon and such things as crossing oneself were unknown before at least the 2nd century and perhaps not until much later. So it is not surprising if the Apocalypse reveals the realities of spiritual warfare in allegorical form as this was what the church at that time knew from the beginning: “we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.”

    John doesn’t reference the cross in his letters but uses ‘blood’ to signify the results of its power in this spiritual warfare and, in like manner, Revelation 12 makes this so plain as you have emphasised here. Paul’s references to the cross (except maybe the first part of Corinthians where he is combatting hubristic Greek wisdom) emphasises the present work of the cross through the Holy Spirit in converting people to a holy lifestyle. It has always struck me that an over-emotional focus on the cross as a place of suffering for the Lord has detracted from the necessary work of the cross in our daily lives. Without this grace of self being crucified (taking up our cross in the words of Jesus) we shall never understand yet alone engage with the spiritual warfare which Revelation helps us to understand and which I’m convinced was the main focus of the mission of the Church in the beginning.

    P.S. As I keep commenting on your Revelation articles I thought it only fair to ask Santa for a copy of your book – looking forward to it!

  4. Thank you for this distillation, from your work, digging into scripture. It is evidence, if needed, that commentaries can be more devotional, than devotionals, bringing all glory to God.
    It is also a reminder that Revelation has been described as a pastoral letter, for the church today.
    Here is a link to Spurgeon on Commentaries:
    I particularly like Spurgeon’s endorsement of Richard Sibbes: “Sibbes never wastes the student’s time; he scatters pearls and diamonds with both hands”.

  5. Ian,
    It goes without saying that this is definitely of topic, and from a different discipline, but, to me, a marvellous example of someone who didn’t waste a word, writing in short sentences, from a great intellect, was law Lord, Lord Denning, a legal hero to me and many of my contemporary law students. He started off as a mathematician. Even Wikki gives a example of his style, even in delivering prominent judgements.
    A great read, to me, is, his book, “The Family Story”, which I read as a student, unaware from his judgements at the height of his career, rather than his later years, that he was considered to be a conservative Christian, as he seemed irritated many in the judiciary with his decision making.
    Apart from his judgements, a formative book is started out with his ” The Discipline of the Law”, which is still well regarded. Just look at the Amazon reviewers for testimonies on his use of the English language, let alone the subject matter.
    His style is not one I come across from many theologians who seem to delight abstruse communication, like some philosophers. Maybe there are some, but they may be willing to risk being classed as populist by their theological fellowship of CS Lewis’s Inner Ring.
    Apologies for going on about this. I’ve overstayed a welcome.

  6. Maybe it is best to compare historical research to textual research which has sometimes aptly been described as chipping away at a coalface. It is far more mundane than theology-reality-application – but it is a necessary preliminary step in order that the theology-reality-application (which is the summit) be correctly formulated.

    It is generally agreed that the NT texts will have intertextual, theological and historical dimensions throughout (these not being mutually exclusive), and what will happen is that while some are straining for the summit others insist on rechecking the foundations – both are indispensable, and it is ideally best to do both, though to each is given as the Spirit wills.

    In the Rev 11 context the message is ‘the main thing’ (as ever) and historical reference is widely agreed to be present in the text, because:
    (a) this is a woe which is now past, as opposed to the things that are still to come. Must therefore refer to specific events that are past;
    (b) several of the references are not to scripture, but to something else [going through Rev with 3 different colours of pencil for ‘structure’, ‘scripture’ and ‘history’ is instructive, producing in my experience very little overlap between the 3 categories/motivations].
    (c) the non-scripture bits are precisely the bits that seem likeliest candidates for contemporary reference – this is unlikely to be coincidental;
    (d) and if we ask what particular history is being referred to, 4 different features of the year-68 Idumean-massacre, all from one calendar day, all featuring in the ch11 portion of the 2nd woe (above) is certainly a promising start.
    (e) most agree that a year 68 event is already referred to in Rev -one of the only clearly datable historical references in its pages – namely Nero’s death.

    From throwing all this into the mix with all the other dimensions of this passage, we culminate in the theological and practical lessons for the faithful.


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