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.
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.