beauty and the beast: empire in the book of revelation (part 4)

Other parts of this series:

Part 1—Revelation in Context
Part 2—The Beast: Might and Power
Part 3—The Prostitute: Seduction and Luxury

Part 4—The Lamb: The Witness of the Cross

In the previous parts of this study I have discussed two of the malevolent characters in Revelation, namely the Beast and the Great Prostitute, representing on the one hand military might and violence and on the other luxury and economic exploitation respectively.

These are powerful critiques on the part of the author. But critique and challenge are not enough for faithful discipleship—we also need to embody an alternative. With this in mind, what positive model does John give us to follow? What hope do we have in the midst of a world of violence and greed?

We must remember that in Revelation Rome is simply the then-current manifestation of empire![1] Though John himself was not envisioning future empires, such as those in our time, the images can nonetheless be indirectly applied to them because the phenomenon of empire is, as John knew, an ongoing reality. The challenge for us is to identify empire and “come out” of it.

If we are called to come out of Empire, what does this mean exactly? What models does John give?

I want to suggest that John offers us very strong models, but unfortunately they are often unacknowledged or ignored. One of the most important images is that offered as an alternative to the powerful and monstrous Beast and the seductive and inebriating Prostitute: The Lamb in Revelation 5.


Revelation 5

Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”

And between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain, with seven horns and with seven eyes, which are the seven spirits of God sent out into all the earth. And he went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who was seated on the throne. And when he had taken the scroll, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb, each holding a harp, and golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints. And they sang a new song, saying,

“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation,
and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God,
and they shall reign on the earth.”

Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice,

“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”

And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying,

“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”

And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.

While the Jesus (as the Lamb) is not introduced until chapter 5, Revelation does begin with the assertion that the vision and prophecy of John is in fact a revelation of Jesus Christ (1:1). Christ is pictured in 1:12-16 as a glorious heavenly being. When John falls at his feet, Christ says to him, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades.” (1:17-18)

The statement “I am the first and the last” corresponds to God’s statement in 1:8 (“I am the Alpha and the Omega”). Christ is equated with God, arguably more clearly than in any other NT writing.

This identification, and the other attributes expressed by Christ about himself, are not simply uttered in a vacuum – they are a direct challenge to any sovereign claims made by Caesar and Rome. That Christ is the first and the last expresses that all things find their origin and purpose in him, vis-à-vis the claims of the emperor. In addition Christ is risen from the dead, that is, the death inflicted by Rome. But more than that, in his resurrection Christ has overcome Death and Hades themselves!

Moving to chapter 5, the portrayal of the Lamb is central to how John portrays Christ, and thus how he portrays God. References to the ‘Lamb’ occur 28 times (7 x 4; the two most common numbers in Revelation, 7=completeness, 4=the world).

We are first introduced to the Lamb when John is weeping because no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll in God’s hand (5:1-4). One of the elders says to John, “Weep no more; behold the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the root of David has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and the seven seals.” (5:5) In this description, which John hears, we are led to expect what many in Israel had expected—a nationalistic warrior messiah, a militaristic conqueror as envisioned throughout the history of Israel (like David), who will win God’s victory.

This expectation is turned upside down when what John sees is the opposite of what he had heard. The conqueror is not a mighty Lion, but a Lamb who has been slain.

The death and resurrection of this Lamb is, as John will learn, how God’s victory is embodied. This image shakes up the assumption that God will win his victory through Lion-like violence and power. It is the Lamb’s sacrificial death has ransomed the people from all nations—the militaristic and nationalistic overtones are muted. Strangely sacrificial death is the means by which God will conquer the world. This is a theme that will run throughout Revelation.

The episode of the Lamb communicates to us many things, but there are three I want to explore.

1. The Lamb’s sacrificial death tells us about what God is like
I mentioned this before—Jesus, the Lamb, is equated with God. If we want to know what God is like, we look at Jesus, who is characterised as a slain Lamb. God’s nature, according to Revelation, is like the crucified Christ. While there is no space here to engage in discussion of the apocalyptic images of divine violence in Revelation, what can be said in brief is that we must look at these portrayals of apparent divine violence through the lens of the slain Lamb, the paradigmatic image of Christ in the book.

That worship is a central theme in Revelation is not to be ignored. Of the many things we can say about worship, there are two we must draw out here. The first is that worship is mimetic. What I mean by this is that we invariably conform to the image of that which we worship. Idolatry is a problem, and indeed is forbidden, since the worship of idols leads to the distortion of the person in the image of the idol.

The second thing is that the content of the doxologies in Revelation glorify God, yes, but they also challenge all other claims to sovereignty.

  • 4:11—“Worthy are you Lord God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.”
  • 5:9-10—Worthy are you (the Lamb) to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”

These are direct challenges to the sovereign claims of Rome!

If worship truly is mimetic as I have said, the nature of God and Christ is extremely important, since distorted notions of God will lead to distorted worshipers. What Jesus is like is what God is like! We are meant to be like this!

 2. The Lamb is the model for all disciples (“Witness Wins”)
One of the key myths of Rome was Victoria! The myth that the empire was founded on victory, and that this was how order and prosperity was maintained. This essentially meant military conquest, and so Victoria was intimately related to the myth of Pax Romana (discussed in Part 1).

The early Christians, worshiping a crucified person as they did, had a counter-myth about what true victory actually was.

In 1:5 Jesus Christ is called “the faithful witness” (also 1:2, 9; 3:14). It is no surprise then that perhaps the most important title given to his followers in Revelation is “witnesses” (martys; “martyr”). These followers hold “the witness (testimony) of Jesus” (1:2, 9; 12:11, 17; 19:10; 20:4). This does not mean that they witness about Jesus, but that they bear the same testimony that Jesus himself bore, namely witness to God and his kingdom over-against all other claimants to sovereignty and victory.

This was also Israel’s role in the OT (Isa. 43:10, 12; 44:8): to be a light to the nations, revealing the true God and the way of life he desires for all. Israel was meant to be a nation of witnesses!

In Revelation 11 we are given an image of faithful witnesses: They are characterised as Elijah (“They have the power to shut the sky, that no rain may fall during the days of their prophesying”; v.6) and as Moses (“they have power over the waters to turn them into blood and to strike the earth with every kind of plague, as often as they desire”; v.6), the two paradigmatic prophets and witnesses of the Old Testament (cf.19:10). In the Old Testament two witnesses were required for a truthful (faithful) testimony in a legal setting, and it is no coincidence that Revelation depicts a pair of witnesses.

They give their witness, and then are killed by the violence of the Beast (11:7). The empire apparently strikes back.

Their bodies lie in the street of the great city symbolically called Sodom and Egypt “where their Lord was crucified.” (11:8) This is a thinly veiled reference to Jerusalem, but it is also more than that. Jerusalem had become a place of violence and idolatry, hence the reference to the fact that Jerusalem crucified the Lord! John is here comparing Jerusalem to Egypt and Sodom; in other words the Holy City had become like any other empire, and as a result had been destroyed. Judgment is apparently not limited to foreign empires—God does not play favourites! (Equally, salvation is not limited to one group!)

In short, the witnesses lie dead in the symbolic streets of empire, which can be “here” as much as it can be “there” (take care!).

The witnesses are not given a proper burial, that is, they are shamed and humiliated (as in near-Eastern culture) (11:9). The people of the earth rejoice over their death because the witnesses ”had been a torment” to them (11:10). Their testimony, by revealing the truth about the world, the kingdom of God and the way things really are, besieged the people of the earth.

Though the witnesses are killed, they are resurrected to life. Their enemies watch as they are raised and as judgement comes on the earth. (11:11-13) The people of the earth are said to give glory to God in response, that is, they believe the testimony of the witnesses and become faithful to God and his kingdom. (11:13)

This is the way in which true victory is won in Revelation, and for all time…

Of course, the witnesses are not literal people, but they are symbolic of the Church. The Church’s job is, according to Revelation, to be witnesses of Jesus in the world, even under the threat of violence and death. When Jesus says to the churches in chapters 2-3 “To the one who conquers I will… (insert some reward) (2:7, 11, 17, 26; 3:5, 12, 21) he is subverting the nature of conquering in the imperial world. Conquering is normally all about beating down your enemy until they submit, but for Jesus “conquering” is all about bearing witness to the reality of God’s kingdom over against the empires of the world.

3. The Lamb is an image of what empire does
The violence of the empire, characterised later by the Beast (ch. 13), is revealed in the fate of the Lamb, and indeed of the witnesses who follow after him. Empire is violent, and attempts to erase all who would witness to an alternative story. Victory comes through destroying the enemy.

The victory of God, on the other hand, is somehow won in death and suffering. My sense is that this is because faithfully suffering at the hands of empire without offering a violent response actually serves to reflect the true violent nature of empire.

This is why disciplined nonviolent actions in our world, especially martyrdom, are so effective in changing public opinion in the long term—they reveal the true and terrible nature of oppressive regimes.

(How many people knew anything about Syria until the last little while?)

It is worth finishing by outlining what Revelation teaches about where the world is headed. Many people use Revelation as a road map for the future, believing that it gives a detailed account of what is to come in “the last days”.

But it is important to stress that Revelation, as I have said in previous parts of this study, is not about the end of the world—it paints a picture of what was the case in John’s time, and continues to speak to us about imperial realities in our world and the need for faithful witness.

Revelation, however, does offer a vision of the end of empire, of a world in which “the empire of this world has become the empire of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he shall reign forever and ever.” (11:15)

The end of empire is not the end of the world as is commonly taught. The end of Revelation gives us an image of not a world that is destroyed, but rather a world that is restored!

In Revelation 21 John sees a vision of a renewed heaven and earth, and as N.T. Wright says, the earth is not pulverised, but rather it is joined together with heaven, the fullness of creation is finally united! The end of Revelation paints a beautiful picture of a world in which everything is turned upside-down, or perhaps more correctly a world in which things have been turned right-way up—everything has been restored to how it should be.

In the meantime we are given the opportunity to enact that upside-down reality in the present, to embody the new creation in our lives here and now. We must choose between:

  • Worshiping the Beast or the Lamb
  • Entering the luxury of the Prostitute, or being the Bride of Christ
  • Living in the city of Babylon with its oppression and exploitation of the poor and marginalised, or living in the city of the New Jerusalem in which the river of life flows for all people
  • Embodying and enjoying the violence of the Dragon and the Beast, or being willing to nonviolently lay down our lives as witnesses of Christ

What are some ways we can embody the reality of the New Creation, the restored world, here and now?

In other words, How can the Church be the Church in the face of powerful and seductive empire?

Note: At this point, when delivering this study, there was a discussion about faithful witness and discipleship in our own world and the imperative for the Church to be the Church in embodying alternative ways of living, both local and global.

[1] Wes Howard-Brook, “Come Out, My People!” (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2010), 466.

Posted on October 10, 2012, in Biblical Studies, Church/Ecclesiology, Conflict and Nonviolence, Mission, New Testament and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

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