The book of Revelation is a highly political book. In order to properly interpret the book and understand the signs, symbols and language, we need to look at the politics of 1st century Rome. This will lead us to politics in the 21st century United States. As we get there, I will do my best to be political but not partisan which is difficult because there are very few things that are political and not partisan anymore.
Regardless of what party we identify with or if we find a party to identify with at all, we do so, as people of faith, informed by our faith. I don’t think God or Jesus can be particularly claimed by one party or another. The Republicans have become the party of the Evangelical Christians but there is a growing Religious Left movement among Progressives. Both are faithful people and strive to direct their public lives rooted in their beliefs about who God is and what God does. So, I will tread lightly.
In our throne room, we have God at the center being worshipped by 4 living creatures and surrounded by 24 elders dressed in white robes and wearing crowns. The elders cast down their crowns before the throne. Casting down crowns is a political act in 1st century Rome and indicates allegiance. If the emperor was visiting, a delegation of citizens would go to see him. They would be given golden crowns to wear which they would lay down before the emperor. This laying down of crowns is a sign of being the emperor’s subject. It is a sign of allegiance.
This scene of elders laying down their crowns before the throne of God is an act of resistance to the Roman empire. The elders are saying there is no god but God. The emperor or head of state can’t be likened to God or elevated to that status because there is only one sovereign God to be worshiped and due our allegiance. The imagery is counter-cultural in a culture that worshiped the emperor for elders to lay down their crows before God and pledge allegiance to God alone.
In God’s presence any reference or sign or symbol that distracts our attention from God or draws us away from our relationship with God or calls us to pledge allegiance to anyone but God or any kingdom but God’s kingdom is simply disgraceful. American Christian practice allows some space for distraction. We have an American flag in our sanctuary. A sign that we have an allegiance to a leader and a nation other than God and His Kingdom. We are the only country, according to a survey I did of a Facebook group of other clergy who serve all over the world, we are the only country to have national flags in our sanctuary. Our flag is here as a sign of our allegiance to God and country.
John’s vision continues in Chapter 5. John sees God seated on the throne holding a scroll in His right hand sealed with seven seals. An angel asks, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” The angel searches for someone who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll which we know to contain the will of God. If the seals are not broken and the scroll read, we will never know God’s plan for the final victory and the fullness of the coming kingdom. The one found to be worthy will be the one who reveals the will of God.
No one in Heaven or on earth or under the earth was found worthy and able to open the scroll or to read it. John wept bitterly because no one was found worthy to reveal the will of God. Then, one of the elders said to John, “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that He can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
John turns to look for the lion but sees a slaughtered lamb. The lamb goes to the throne and takes the scroll from the right hand of the One seated on the throne. The four living creatures and the 24 elders fall before the lamb, worship Him and sing, “You are worthy” and “You ransomed the saints” and “Worthy is the lamb.”
No one had been found worthy, but then, the lion of Judah was found worthy. For John, this conjures up the expectations of the Messiah. This goes back to the long-expected warrior Messiah that would destroy the Roman empire by military action and the kingdom of Israel would be restored under the Messiah who would be like King David. But, that is not the Messiah we got. Jesus is the slaughtered lamb. In God’s world order, where He is at the center, worshipped by all around, sacrifice is a sign of power. Sacrifice is the act through which God saved the world and continues to save us.
In verse 5, the elder says “the Lion has conquered.” The Greek word nikhen is translated conquer. It can also be translated victory. It is the word from which Nike took their name. In Roman culture, the one who is worthy is the one who is victorious in winning a battle, especially one of winning the throne. He is worthy of worship for being a conqueror and dominates. The victor oppresses, enslaves, subjugates.
But, Christ is not that kind of victor. Christ’s victory comes through loosing bonds and setting the oppressed free. Christ is victorious over death through redemption and salvation. In Christ’s kingdom, we are saved to be brought in, not defeated to be subjects. Here, Christ is worthy of worship and worthy to open the scrolls because He has been victorious over death and able to reveal the will of God.
And, the choir sings, “Worthy is the Lamb.” The Greek word axios which is translated worthy is a politically charged word in Rome. When the Roman emperor was seen in public, the crowds would yell, “Worthy! Worthy!” The emperor was thought to be worthy of their worship because he was a conqueror. One of my sources likened this to a band playing “Hail to the Chief!” when the President of the United States enters a large gathering. But, again, in God’s kingdom the only one worthy of our allegiance and worship is God and His lamb.
As we read the book of Revelation and begin to understand the political message of John’s vision with its politically charged signs, symbols and language, our questions should be, “Who do we give our allegiance? And, who do we trust to reveal God’s will?” I can’t help but think of a particular example from this past week when asking these questions.
This week, Pastor Robert Jeffress, one of the president’s spiritual advisors, advised the president that God is okay will bombing North Korea. Pastor Jeffress said “God has given the president full control to take out North Korean leader Kim John Un. The pastor looked to a passage from Romans and wrote that rulers have full power to use whatever means necessary – including war – to stop evil.”
Pastor Jeffress is one the president trusts to reveal the will of God. The problem I have with Pastor Jeffress’ message is that I don’t think God gets into specifics like take out Kim John Un. I think the scroll that Christ opened revealing the will of God says something more like peace among nations. I’m not saying that war is never justified. The Just War theory is rooted in Christian theology. There are right reasons to go to war and rights acts in war understood through the lens of our Christian faith.
I think we can discern when war is necessary, but what I really want us to consider…is that when God’s will is revealed it is in the long tradition of the Bible. And, we find worthy the One who never declared violence against anyone, who is named the Prince of Peace, and who promoted peacemakers. Before we go pledging allegiance to the President, trusting his spiritual advisors, and supporting war with North Korea, or Venezuela or whoever, we need to enter the throne room of God, pledge our allegiance to God first, and ask, “What is the path to peace among the nations? How do we protect the innocent? And, how do we set free the oppressed?”
We must remember that the power of God is unleashed through the sacrifice and death of Christ. We cannot understand the will of God apart from the Slaughtered Lamb whose journey leads to the cross and victory is in the resurrection. Peace among the nations will come through humility and self-sacrifice, not ego and might.
Sources: I read so much I don’t remember where I read what so here are the links to the articles I read and the podcasts I listened to.