Revelation contains many symbols. Some of them are easy to understand, some are hard, and some are just paradoxical.
Ironically, the paradoxical ones can be particularly easy to figure out.
Here’s what you should know . . .
1. What Is a Paradoxical Symbol?
A paradoxical symbol, as I am using the term, is one in which Revelation symbolizes something in a surprising at–at first glance–contradictory way. It involves a reversal of expectations.
These symbols often involve two statements, the first of which sets up certain expectations on the part of the reader and the second which reverses these expectations.
You can see them as a pair of two, seemingly contrary symbols that must be understood together to have a true picture of what is meant.
The best way to explain this is by looking at examples . . .
2. The Lion That Is a Lamb
In Revelation 5, one of the twenty-four elders in heaven comes to John, who is weeping because no one can open the scroll that reveals God’s will. The elder says:
“Weep not; lo, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals” [Rev. 5:5].
This draws on symbolism from the book of Genesis where Israel’s son Judah is described as a “young lion” (Genesis 49:9).
The added specification of “the Root of David” makes it clear that the elder is referring to Jesus, the Messiah, who was both from the tribe of Judah and a descendant of David.
We are told that the lion “has conquered,” enabling him to open the scroll.
Based on what John has been told, he (and the reader) could expect him to turn and see Jesus depicted in the form of a lion, a violent, deadly beast who “has conquered”—possibly with bloody claws and fangs.
But when he turns, John sees something very different:
And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders, I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth [Rev. 5:6].
Instead of a conquering lion, John sees a lamb that is “standing, as though it had been slain.”
It is not a powerful, ravening predator with dripping claws and fangs but a weak, vulnerable prey animal that has been mortally wounded.
And yet it stands. This represents Jesus’ resurrection (the Lamb stands) in spite of the fact that he was crucified (“had been slain”).
Here we have a paradox–a juxtaposition of two seemingly contradictory symbols:
- The Lion: The dangerous predator that conquers (overcomes its prey)
- The Lamb: The vulnerable prey that is slain (overcome by its conquerors)
To fully understand this symbolism, we have to embrace both images.
It is true that Jesus is a Lion from the tribe of Judah. He has conquered.
But the way he has done these things is surprising and involves a reversal of expectations: He has conquered by assuming a position of vulnerability, by serving as the Lamb, and being slain–and raised again to stand despite this.
This is not the only symbol in Revelation of this type.
3. White Robes That Should Be Red