When I first proposed to a group the possibility of researching the theme of discipleship in Revelation, I was greeted with both inquisitive and perplexed looks. In fact, one of my professors couldn’t seem to see how discipleship and the book of Revelation actually fit together. But others, including some NT professors, thought the subject was ripe for study, and so I started and completed my dissertation, and later a book (Following the Lamb) on the topic.
While I think most of us who are Christians would generally concur with Michael Wilkins’s statement, “The consensus in the history of the church … is that the concept of discipleship is apparent everywhere in the NT, from Matthew through Revelation,”[i] most of us would still be left wondering, how in the world is the concept of discipleship revealed in Revelation. What follows is an example of the theme of discipleship worked out in Revelation.
Although the theme of discipleship is interspersed throughout the book of Revelation, one passage in particular has been widely recognized as a key discipleship text in the book, namely, 14:1–5. In this text, one not only finds characteristics of NT disciples, but also words of comfort to those following after Christ.
Revelation 14:1–5 occurs within the context of 12:1–14:20, which covers in summary fashion the birth of the Messiah through the church’s involvement in end-time events. Revelation 14:1–5 fits into this overarching scene by noting the sealing of those whom Jesus has redeemed, thus preserving them from God’s wrath that is poured out on the wicked at the close of the age (14:17–20). As one focuses in on 14:1–5, one finds at least seven characteristics of those who are disciples of Jesus Christ. I will address only the first today.
The first characteristic has to do with the disciple’s growing understanding of who Jesus is. This is not about learning some new facts about who Jesus is and stopping there. There is a reason for believers to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. When addressing the theme of discipleship in Revelation, one must remember that the book is addressed to Christians who were either being persecuted for their faith in Christ or were about to suffer persecution in the near future. Part of the reason for the book was for the true Church (made up of regenerate Christians) to be comforted and assured of their salvation won for them by Jesus Christ in spite of their present reality. One of the ways to do this was by providing depictions of Christ throughout the book. This becomes clearer as one considers the vision of Jesus described in 14:1.
The depiction of Christ in 14:1 is first of all, a Lamb. Of its 28 occurrences in Revelation, “lamb” is used almost exclusively to represent Christ. This particular imagery is found only in Johannine literature and only once outside of Revelation (John 21:15). The image of the Lamb in 14:1 is of him “standing,” which recalls 5:5–6 and the standing of the slaughtered Lamb. His standing points to his victory over sin and death through the cross, and also looks forward to his triumph over his enemies (14:14, 17–20).
The location of the Lamb is on “Mount Zion.” This depiction of the Lamb reveals three truths related to the theme of discipleship. First, Mount Zion is identified with Jerusalem, the capital of king David where the kings of Judah reigned. Earlier the Lamb is said to have hailed from the tribe of Judah (5:5–10). So in 14:1, one should not be surprised to find the Lamb rightfully ruling from Zion. Only one is able to rule from this place, and it is King Jesus, the one true King. Jesus’ disciples are those who recognize him as King over them. They express their undying loyalty to him and him alone. Second, Mount Zion was the center of Israelite worship, since the temple was located there. Revelation 14:2 depicts believers worshiping the only ones worthy of worship, God and the Lamb. In the book of Revelation on worships either the unholy trinity or the true Trinity. Christians are those who worship Jesus. They reject all false gods. Third, in Scripture Mount Zion is referred to as a place of security and refuge. The followers of the shepherding Lamb find safety in his presence (7:15–17). Jesus is able to protect those entrusted to his care.
Remember that Revelation is written to those who are either enduring persecution or may soon suffer it. The picture of Jesus would certainly offer comfort to those undergoing external suffering for their commitment to Christ. Jesus is the true King whom they follow. While their circumstance may say otherwise, they can rest assured that Jesus is sovereign over all, even those who might threaten their lives. Jesus is also one who is worthy of all worship. His disciples worship him, not only because of who he is, but also because of what he has done for them. He has “redeemed” them (14:3). Christians have reason to hope and be glad regardless of their particular situation. No matter what befalls them, they have been redeemed, purchased through the blood of the Lamb, reconciled to God, and kept for eternal fellowship (14:15–16). Disciples of Jesus are also those kept safe in Christ. This does not mean they will not suffer the machinations of the enemy, which may include the loss of their possessions, their family, even their very lives. But, they are kept safe in Christ; their souls are secure in his presence. Such security also foreshadows the end of the age when believers will be free from the work of the devil, as he along with the unholy trinity is cast into the lake of burning sulfur for eternity (20:10), no longer able to threaten God’s holy people. This is truly comfort to any and all who suffer for the sake of the name.
[i] Michael J. Wilkins, Following the Master: Discipleship in the Steps of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1992), 293.