For Andrei Sinyavsky, Russian critic and novelist, serving seven years in a corrective labor colony called Dubrovlag (the “oak-forest-camp”), Revelation’s vision of grace was a tiny bit of freedom in a tundra of thought control. The book’s images of hope made him invulnerable to his torturous ordeal.
Because Scripture was forbidden in the labor camps, Sinyavsky kept his handwritten copy of Revelation concealed in one of his boots. Wherever he went, Revelation went; its vivid images a constant companion of light to his darkness and the silent thoughts that filled his soul.
Why Revelation? Why not the Psalms? Why not one of the Gospels?
Sometime during his second year at Dubrovlag, struggling with how hard it was to live in hope, Sinyavsky became captivated with Revelation. He came to the place where he could say, “I understand,” and wrote: “Henceforth it will never leave me. Eschatology, the Revelation in my boot—I march on, happy as can be.”1
What had he come to “understand” that would “never leave” him? What had those hand-scrawled pages in his boot revealed that would make him invulnerable to his ordeal? What could ever enable him to “march on, happy as can be” in a place he himself called the “house of the dead”?
“Eschatology,” he claimed, a vision of last things bounded and defined by divine grace. He saw a view of God, human history, and the real meaning of life. He saw how our human darkness will finally end in a glorious morning, where righteousness and justice, truth and shalom, will triumph. All because of grace, God’s grace.
Sinyavsky had come under the spell of the God that atheistic communism had so rudely ousted from his country. Somehow all the confusion and turmoil of Russia’s terrible years as well as the moral gloom it cast for the days ahead no longer seemed so hopeless. God was surpassingly present. Sovereign Lord. God of grace and peace. So Revelation remained in his boot.
Grace doesn’t usually come to mind when we think of Revelation. Violent sequences of blood, death, war, judgment, and threat of eternal damnation make the book a challenging, often horrifying, bewildering, and confusing text.2 We often read with foreboding rather than hope. We wonder about the moral stance it seems to take, and whether we need the book at all.3
Yet John’s Apocalypse begins and ends with grace: “Grace and peace to you” (Rev. 1:4); “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God's people. Amen” (Rev. 22:21). Grace is the first word that welcomes every listener. Grace is Revelation’s last word of blessing and benediction. The farewell of grace corresponds to, and echoes, the welcome of grace. Like two weighty bookends, grace holds everything written in between firmly in place.
How much would you risk to protect your copy of Revelation? Would you give up your freedom? Your sanity? Your life?
It forms an interpretive literary inclusio. It places everything in its own context. We must read Revelation within those brackets in order to understand its heart message. Grace is that message, conveying what the Apocalypse is really about, and providing Scripture’s last word to human beings!
More than a casual greeting or benediction, Revelation’s grace bestows what it proclaims.4 The book unveils grace that helps; grace that saves; grace that can make a difference both now and for eternity; grace that brings hope and peace; grace that provides a defining vision of God.
As an apocalyptic writing, this kind of greeting and benediction is unusual.5 However, the seriousness of the human situation is unusual too.
Here is the record of arrogant evil; unremitting war against the right; the tenacity of sin; and the depravity of humanity. What, besides God’s grace, can meet such a catastrophe!
Nothing but grace can hold us steady when moral and spiritual compromise seem to purchase everyone around. Only grace can provide and nurture the staying power we need to keep faith in the assurance of God’s ultimate redemptive, re-creative victory. Only grace can fulfill that vision of the cosmic conflict ended, all things made new, and the universal experience of eternal shalom.
Grace begins Revelation. Grace pervades throughout. Under one symbol or another, God and His saving grace through Christ are woven throughout. Grace is God’s last word.
Before the book lists good and bad churches, closed and opened seals, coming and sounded trumpets, scorching or avoided plagues, beasts and their menacing pursuit, we first hear God’s blessing of grace. And when every chilling scene has passed through our imagination, till the truth comes home to us that the cosmic conflict includes the geography of our own heart, then God softens the impact of that unnerving truth with grace. After the traumatic, existential impact, He presses firmly into the deepest recesses of our hearts the certainty of His desire that, above all, He wants us to experience grace—His grace, the grace of the Lord Jesus.
It is a grace that will be with us in real time—wherever we go, whatever our experience in life (Rev. 22:21). It is grace that is intensely personal. It is mediated by a personal, living God who assures us that grace is with us, because the God of grace Himself is with us, profoundly present and sovereignly in control of our world and its future: “One thing will certainly be understood from the study of Revelation—that the connection between God and His people is close and decided.”6
Revelation’s grace unfolds with a dynamic view of the triune God: “from him who is, and who was, and who is to come, and from the seven spirits before his throne, and from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:4, 5). Grace comes from the Father, and [from] the Spirit, and [from] Jesus Christ. The “from” connected by “and” indicates three separate and distinct persons. Each person of the triune God is capable of communicating grace and peace—as well as the judgment, protection, hope, and redemption within Revelation's narratives.
Grace originates in the triune God. The Father, the Spirit, and the Son are each identified with the movement of grace in the book of Revelation. From beginning to end, human salvation is purely a work of divine grace. Grace undergirds the entire experience of salvation. Grace displays itself in a person’s life. The grace of the triune God reaches out to humanity. The Holy Spirit brings personal application to every believer of the grace that the Father has ordained from eternity, and the Son has accomplished through the cross.7
Grace is the God of love moving toward humanity with blessing. The book offers praise “to him who loves us” (Rev. 1:5). The form of the verb John uses for love is a present active participle. It is love that is current, continuous, compelling, real—and intensely personal. It is love that encompasses our past, our present, and our every tomorrow.
Grace then, flows from God’s unconditional love. God loves me in spite of who I am. Such love stirs overflowing praise: “to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen” (verse 6). God has done, is doing, and will do for us what we can never deserve. Nothing can make God love us less. Nothing can make God love us more. The Father, the Spirit, and the Son, each and together love us!
This is grace: neither abstract, nor elusive, but personal; real; born of love that longs to restore us so that
we can behold with wonder the face of Him who now loves us deeply (Rev. 22:4). The grace of love assures us that God’s power can work in our lives (Rev. 1:5, 6; 12:11).
Revelation’s unfolding of love-prompted grace brings important aspects of the cosmic conflictinto sharper focus. Salvation unfolds as the real plot of Revelation’s philosophy of history and the why of divine grace.8
In the centerpoint of the book, between its two grace markers (Rev. 1:4; 22:21), a loud voice in heaven raises a triumphant hymn celebrating God’s mighty actions on behalf of human beings (Rev. 12:10-12). The song underscores the wholistic nature, cosmic dimension, and universal application of Christ’s substitutionary death. It reveals selfless grace, sacrificial grace, vicarious grace—grace both unique and efficacious, a mystery of sacrifice (see Heb. 2:9) that challenges our reflection.
Christ’s death and resurrection make Him not only the Lord of history and human destiny but also the exalted focus of celebratory worship (Rev. 5:9-14). Saving grace compels our song of praise: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain” (verse 12); “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev. 7:10). So that while grace provides interpretive bookends, the cross takes center page as the most profound demonstration of grace.
Within the book’s cosmic conflict narrative, this unfolding of divine grace in the Lamb’s death is the unequivocal turning point of salvation history (Rev. 5:1-10; 12:10-13; 13:8). Grace overtakes and surpasses sin and sickness, war and catastrophe. Grace is grander than our human disgrace. God’s grace effects change in human hearts, our human condition, the destiny of our planet and the universe. It is profoundly transformative.
Grace releases us from our sins (Rev. 1:5) and delivers us from shame, guilt, and the uncertainty of judgment (Rev. 12:11; 18:20). Washed deep within, we can now celebrate innocence before self and God Himself (Rev. 7:14). Grace invests us with significance: “a kingdom and priests” in relation to God, reflectors of divine grace to a lost world (Rev. 1:5, 6; 5:9, 10; 14:1-5). Our personal experience with redeeming grace results in obedient living, purity, truthfulness and innocence before God, a life that follows the Lamb’s self-sacrificing way (Rev. 7:15; 14:1-5; cf. Rev. 3:21).
Our experience of grace becomes God’s witness to a world in need of a word of grace and the hope of grace (Rev. 14:1-13), in fulfillment of God’s promise that reading Revelation will generate “a great revival” and “an entirely different religious experience.”9
We have said that in the process of closing, Revelation becomes intensely personal. It moves from the cosmic to the individual, from global events and world history to personal accountability and private decisions. Apocalyptic visions now generate personal vision—a look within, a focus on the existential.
In doing so, Revelation no longer speaks to just everyone. Its word to “the one” (Rev. 22:11, 12, 17-19) is a word straight to you, to me. Its meaning is direct and explicit. And urgent: grace is present, freely available, and lingering. But not forever: the call of “the Spirit and the bride” (Rev. 22:17) ends for those who will not come. They have no place in the book, and become objects of the final plagues (verses 18, 19).
In the end, the “grace of the Lord Jesus” is Revelation’s final thought to all, letting us know that this is what revealing Jesus is all about. Grace is God’s revelation. Let it haunt your imagination. Let it hang on your lips (Rev. 22:21). It is grace flowing from a heart that loves us dearly—grace flowing from Jesus.
Grace is an appropriate opening and close for the final description of God’s gracious provision for His people in heaven and on earth. In a sense, Revelation itself is a manifestation of this grace, as it unveils a hope that helps. Through the power of the Holy Spirit the book bestows what it proclaims.10
“Grace to you!”
Larry Lichtenwalter is dean of the faculty of theology, and head of the Institute of Islamic and Arabic Studies, at Middle East University, Beirut, Lebanon.