Although it shines a very disturbing light on the American churches, John’s “ugly Jesus” and “scary Jesus” contain a truth that totally subverts the dominant Christologies and feel good religious impulses that generally characterize current Christianity. It should not be overlooked that John does not reserve this frightful picture of Christ for a scene when Jesus conquers the beast and false prophet or for Revelation 20 when God’s eschatological judgement of the world is seen. Rather, this grotesque Christ is revealed by God for the churches of John’s own day. John is not primarily warning the churches that they will meet this Christ on Judgment Day if they misbehave in the present. Rather, he tells them that this is the Christ with whom they must deal in the present, and, furthermore, he is the one that will be dealing with them in the present. Since some of these early Christians were probably in denial about having to deal with this ugly Jesus in the present, just like the modern church often is, John begins almost every one of the 7 letters with a direct reference back to the Christ of Rev. 1:12-16. John did not want the churches to focus on any other picture of Jesus than the one that caused John to drop dead from fear.
Whether you look at Albrecht Dürer’s (1471-1528) famous woodcut of Jesus Christ which he based upon the picture given in Rev. 1:12-16 or at other less famous attempts to capture John’s iconography, it is clear that John had no interest in making Jesus aesthetically competitive with the other gods and goddesses of the Graeco-Roman world. There is a grotesque nature to John’s portrait, which in turn reflects upon the way that the Alpha and Omega desired to be revealed. Since John mentions that he receives this revelation on the Lord’s Day (Rev. 1:10) it is not even hard to hear liturgical overtones in the context of this appearance of Christ. Our liturgies, our Bibles, our Christian artwork all resonate with images of Jesus, but I don’t ever remember seeing any picture of Jesus being as deformed looking as this one that John experiences during his period of worshipping on the Lord’s Day.
To make this Revelation of Christ (Christophany) appear even more shocking aesthetically, it should be remembered that John and his readers lived and worked in cities and regions renowned for beautiful religious art work and sculpture. Beauty and aesthetic excellence were to be seen everywhere in the monuments, temples, and altars of a metropolis like Pergamum. The temple to the Ephesian Artemis was regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, in part because of its sheer beauty and magnificence.
It is noteworthy that Jesus has to resuscitate the prophet John from death or perhaps a near death experience (Rev. 1:17), apparently because his own image was too scary and frightful for John to tolerate. We all know that real art expresses truths that words can hardly grasp. John’s picture is of a frightful Jesus that the modern American church is hardly able to grasp, much less depict. There is a dullness and monotony about many of the modern visual depictions of Jesus; these Jesus icons barely challenge believers spiritually and so prosaic they often leave the outsider experiencing no qualms about Christ, this messenger of God.
If you think this Jesus seems pretty ugly on paper, just wait until you see what he does to congregations that “refuse to repent” or “to wake up spiritually” or choose to stay “lukewarm.” It is an ugly sight.