Written by Pastor Ed
Revelation: A Question of Allegiance
January 11, 2015
Books of the Bible
Rev. 1: 1-8
Rev. 5: 1-10
Many years ago I preached a series of sermons on the book of Revelation, 6 or 7 sermons as I recall, and I thought I had done a reasonably good job of explaining it. When I was finished with the series, one gentleman in the congregation approached me and said, “Well, that was good, but when are you going to preach about the end times?”
Perhaps no book of the Bible has been either so analyzed or so ignored as the book of Revelation. For some it is so full of imagery and seems so complicated that they simple ignore it or dismiss it. There was even a great deal of discussion as to whether it should be included in the canon of the New Testament.
For others, it provides a life-long obsession in trying to decide exactly what each symbol means and when it will be fulfilled. Often the book of Revelation is combined with other pieces of scripture to create elaborate charts, outlining exactly when and how the end times will happen. Some of the charts can get quite elaborate. Some have taken those Dispensational ideas and created vast publishing and film empires out of them. In the 70’s it was Hal Lindsey with his hugely popular book, The Late Great Planet Earth, and more recently it has been Tim LaHaye’s Left Behind franchise. But is that really what Revelation is all about?
I will admit to having 6 commentaries on Revelation which run the spectrum from J. B. Smith’s commentary which includes an elaborate chart in the back, to a commentary by J. Massyngberde Ford, a New Testament scholar who claims that most of Revelation was written by John the Baptist as a Jewish apocalyptic work, with the Christian beginning and ending added later to make it into the New Testament.
So what can we say about what Vernard Eller calls, The Most Revealing Book of the Bible, the title of his commentary? Let me talk first about several principles of interpretation, and then about the message.
Most commentators agree that the book of Revelation was written sometime toward the end of the first century A.D., usually cited as between the years 90-95 A.D., by someone named John, although exactly who or which John finds little consensus. Whoever he was, he identifies that he is on the isle of Patmos, he is under some duress because of his faith in Jesus, and he received a vision from God. While most Bibles title the book, A Revelation of John, a more accurate title from the book itself would be A Revelation of Jesus Christ.
The book is addressed in verse 4 to the “seven churches that are in Asia,” all of whom are subsequently named with a message to each one. These are actual churches known to have existed in actual towns. Again in 1:11 John says he heard a loud voice saying, “Write in a book what you see and send it to the seven churches, to Ephesus, to Smyrna, to Pergamum, to Thyatira, to Sardis, to Philadelphia, and to Laodicea.” So one of the first principles of interpreting Revelation is that whatever John says needs to make sense to the people of these first century churches. So, you can’t say that the plague of locusts was really referring to Black Hawk helicopters, because the people in Sardis wouldn’t have any idea what those were. They would more likely remember the plagues of Egypt.
This is a principle that applies to any book of the Bible, but especially to books like Revelation. Yet it seems like every generation has tried to translate the symbolism of Revelation directly to their own time and suggest that John was writing directly to them and them alone. All you have to do is check to see who all has been labeled as “666”. John was writing to 1st century Christians and even at times notes that they should be able to figure out what he’s talking about – and we need to be careful not to make the leap immediately to our time.
Secondly, we need to understand what kind of literature this is. Revelation, along with Daniel and sections of other books of the Bible are called apocalyptic literature, full of dreams, visions, and symbols. John is very clear that what he is recording are visions, not the real thing. And we need to read them as such. Eller, in his commentary suggests we view Revelation like we do Picasso’s painting, Guernica. If we know the context, we get a clear picture of what Picasso is portraying, but no one would say this is a literal rendition of the night the village of Guernica, Spain was bombed.
In the same way, if we know the context, we can get a clear sense of what John is portraying, without analyzing all the details of the vision he received. So what was that context?
Shortly before the birth of Jesus, a provincial council issued a decree which honoured Providence for “bringing Augustus, whom she filled with virtue as a benefaction to all humanity; sending to us and to those after us a savior who put an end to war and brought order to all things;…the birth of the god was the beginning of good tidings to the world through him.” (Kraybill, Apocalypse and Allegiance, p. 57)
This is the same Caesar Augustus we read about in Luke 2. Augustus claimed the title “son of God” for himself since his father, Julius Caesar, had been declared divine by the Roman senate. Augustus had consolidated his power and spread the Roman empire over most of the known world, thus ushering in what we often call the Pax Romana, the Roman Peace. Instead of constant warfare, it was a time of peace, and so he was hailed as a “prince of peace” and his supporters assumed his reign would never end, since there was no one to oppose him.
By the time of John’s writing, this cult of emperor worship had become full blown and images and oaths of allegiance were everywhere. And some emperors, like Nero, went to great lengths to claim divine origins and rights. Nelson Kraybill’s book, Apocalypse and Allegiance, from which I quoted before, lays out in great detail all the ways in which this emperor worship was carried out.
So it is not hard to imagine that these emperors, especially those for whom power was addictive, would have felt threatened by a group who not only refused to pledge allegiance to the emperor, but indeed used the same language which the emperors demanded for themselves to honour someone else, namely someone named Jesus. From time to time this led to severe persecution of Christians, particularly under the emperors Nero and Domitian. Nero blamed the Christians for the burning of Rome and created a great spectacle of persecution.
John wrote to churches, and Christians, who were either facing such persecution or who anticipated persecution. One of the cities he wrote to, Pergamum, was one of the first cities to have a temple to Augustus. Is it any wonder he said they were living “where Satan’s throne is?” Christians of the first century church were thus faced with the question, “Where does your allegiance lie – to the emperor or to Christ?” And the answer for them could mean life or death.
And so John’s vision, and the book of Revelation, lays out the choices in sharp contrast and in graphic detail. On the one hand there is the worship of the beast and all the things that are associated with the beast; war, famine, plagues. While the beast and other symbols clearly refer to the Roman Empire of the day, John is clear that the system of empire goes far beyond just the political, for he includes the merchants of commerce as well as kings and rulers. Those who first heard these words would have clearly recognized John’s allusions to the world around them. They would have also probably resonated with some of the violence described, and even wished for against the Roman empire.
In contrast to this picture of a world held together be force and violence is the vision of the heavenly throne room and its occupants beginning in chapters 4 and 5. First John gives us a picture of God, seated on the throne with elders and creatures, all reminiscent of pictures from Ezekiel, worshiping and praising God. And then, dramatically, comes the scene we read where the scroll is presented, but no one is found who could open the scroll – until we are presented with the image which stand in contrast to the beast of the empire – namely the Lamb that was slain.
You don’t need to be a Biblical scholar to figure out who the lamb represents, for the imagery is clear throughout the New Testament, all the way back to John the Baptist. The lamb is Jesus, who is the object of worship by angels and all the elders and creatures around the throne. “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing.”
All those things that the emperor claimed as theirs alone.
As Loren Johns, NT professor at AMBS, points out, “The Lamb of Revelation is manifestly no cute, little nonviolent Lamb. It is a powerful and courageous Lamb who, through his consistent nonviolent and faithful witness, conquered evil.” When the lamb reappears later on in the book, he does wipe out the evil ones with the sword, but the sword of the Lamb is the Word that comes out of his mouth, not the sword of the empire.
As Brian Zahnd says, “Book of Revelation in 20 words: God’s kingdom does not come by the violent means of the beast, but by the self-sacrificing way of the Lamb.” (Brian Zahnd)
John presents his readers, or more correctly his listeners for he tells the churches to read his words to the people, with a clear choice, just as the emperors did. You can either worship the Lamb or the Beast, but not both. But he has one final card to play in this drama, because he knows how the drama ends. The vision ends with the beast and all his cohort being cast into the lake of fire and the city of God, the new Jerusalem coming down to dwell among the people.
And how does he know that is how the drama ends? Because the beginning of the end has already happened. Evil has already been conquered. It’s not just a Lamb, but the Lamb that was slain. John knows how the drama ends because Jesus, in his death and resurrection has already defeated the forces of evil, present in the empires of the world. All that bluster and violence of the beast is, as one commentator said, like a chicken with its head cut off. It can flap around all it wants, but eventually you know it will topple over.
So what does the book of Revelation have to say to us? After all, our leaders don’t claim to be divine and we aren’t forced to choose, are we? Mark Van Steenwyk in his book, The UnKingdom of God, along with numerous other voices today, reminds us that while our leaders may not claim divinity, there are certainly many empires that entice us to throw our allegiance their way. Politicians promise to save us, whether from terrorists or from economic destruction. Celebrities and the media invite us to worship at the altars of popular culture. And the military-industrial complex of the world tells us that unless we remain strong and prop up their empire we face the danger of being overrun by whomever happens to be the latest threat. When faced with violence like this past week it is very tempting to follow the way of the empire and use the methods of violence.
While it may be much more subtle than is was in the 1st century, the language of worship and salvation is all around us in the empires of this world. And perhaps that makes it even more dangerous, for it is so much harder to identify.
Revelation poses the same question for us as it did for those who first heard its message. “Who will you give your allegiance to? At which altar will you worship?
Several weeks ago there was a visitor here in worship who came with a briefcase, some of you may remember him. As he left, he said he wanted to read me something from a book he had in his briefcase. I don’t remember the book, but the message was that there are far too many Christians who are that in name only, and if they are faced with any kind of difficulty or ridicule for being Christian, they are all too ready to compromise or give up their faith. It’s a paragraph I suspect he is reading to a lot of pastors.
There are Christians in the world today who are faced with needing to declare their allegiance in the face of persecution and even death. Thankfully in this country that isn’t the case. But we are faced with choices every day that test to whom we give our allegiance and at what altar we worship.
And if you’re wondering, yes, I do believe we’re living in the end times. They began with the death and resurrection of Jesus, when evil was defeated and the victory over death and destruction was accomplished. How long they will go on, I don’t know, but I do know the end of the story and so it can come at any time. And it will come with the way of the lamb. Maranatha, even so, come Lord Jesus.