“Roman Empire Metaphors in the Book of Revelation”
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
June 3, 2018
University Baptist Church
At the end of the worship service last weekend, Kevin Branting picked a piece of paper from the grab bag. It said: “I would like to hear a sermon about: Roman Empire metaphors in the Book of Revelation.” How long do we have? How many people read Revelation this week? It helps to remember that Revelation was written in code to a persecuted and underground movement from the relative safety of a penal colony. So, the writers couldn’t talk directly about Rome, lest they be accused of sedition.
Revelation was written for and by those on the underside of empire. Those on the other side are not supposed to understand it. It’s like the hip-hop music of today. It’s full of insider language and code that thrills the readers and lets those on the other side of empire dismiss it as an irrelevant fairy tale. It was written to and for seven persecuted churches who were struggling for their survival.
The Roman Empire had control over their lives. The house churches were outlawed under Emperor Nero. The people had to constantly decide who they were faithful to: Caesar or Jesus. The coins said that Caesar was lord. If you said Jesus was lord, you were not only going against empire, but against commerce. You could also be killed for treason.
Revelation implies that it is only after speaking the truth to power can you truly enjoy the New Jerusalem explained in Revelation 21, that place of peace and security where there will no longer be pain or weeping or wailing, for we will all see each other and God in a new way.
Revelation is not for the faint of heart. It’s not to be taken literally. It is meant to be taken seriously. It doesn’t tell what will happen in the future as much as it interprets the life of the persecuted Christians to which it was written. When all hell was breaking loose, it was incredibly comforting to view the apocalypse through the eyes of God and not the eyes of the media.
Unpacking Revelation takes a lot more than this little sermon time can allow. Especially when there is an annual meeting waiting in the wings.
In Greek the word Apocalypse means peeling away. It peels away layers of deception and it reveals the core truth.
Here’s the truth that it reveals:
Empires fall, tyrants fade but God is still here.
That’s the reality revealed by the apocalypse and it’s very good news for those in the midst of persecution.
The book of Revelation acknowledges how hard it is to be a Christian. Revelation makes it so hard that it spends the better part of the book describing in exaggerated and apocalyptic detail the problems of the world. But it also calls those who have lived as slaves to the ways of this world to have patient endurance as you maintain your faithful witness. Persistently resist. The truth is that soon and very soon there will be a new heaven and a new earth.
For the former things have passed away. And those of you who have kept the faithful witness have made it happen.
There are plenty of metaphors of the Roman Empire in the book of Revelation. Chapter 17 is the code-breaking chapter.
So, when you see Babylon, think of Rome. In Revelation, Babylon is a city with seven hills, like Rome. In Revelation, Babylon is led by kings, like Rome. Some of whom have died, like the Roman emperors. When you see the Beast, think of the Roman Emperor. He does the bidding of the Dragon, or Satan. They have all conspired to persecute and kill the Lamb or Jesus. And the faithful witnesses are those who have been martyred in defense of the Lamb.
And worse, the beast’s henchmen appropriate the language of the lamb and seduce people to be drunk on the wine of the blood of the martyrs. Think of the blood rolling in the streets as wars get fought for a “noble cause against tyranny.” Think of our blood washed schools and the way that elected officials cannot stand up to the gun lobby. Are they drunk of the wine of the blood of the martyrs?
If Revelation is anything, it is a book that calls things the way they are.
The Roman emperor (who was probably the Beast in Revelation’s symbolic writing) was hell-bent on wiping out the Christians who sought to subvert his power. Christians were hauled out in front of Caesar and asked, “who is Lord.” If they said, “Caesar is Lord,” they were spared. If they said “Jesus is Lord” they were either drawn and quartered or they were beheaded. It was risky business being a Christian back then. When Revelation talks about the faithful witness having traded their white robes for red, it is referring to people having their own blood spilled. This is a scary book. I Cor. 12 says that no one can say Jesus is Lord, except by the Holy Spirit. We now know why.
In order to bear the faithful witness, it is important to be not afraid and to have incredibly patient endurance. Resist, resist, resist.
Revelation was written were to people in chaos. They needed words of assurance. They had lost many, too many of their family members and loved ones in a wicked war with the state.
The Christian community to whom Revelation was written in about 96 CE were hiding out in catacombs, trying to maintain their faith against huge odds. They met in people's homes, not in huge churches. They did not have a whole lot of established traditions, save Baptism and a communion celebration. Like all challengers of the status quo, wild stories got made up about them. They were accused of cannibalism. People confused what it meant to be consuming the body and blood of Christ. Since they followed one who was crucified by the state, they were clearly unpatriotic. The Roman Emperor Nero accused the Christians of starting a fire which destroyed much of Rome in 64CE. The Christians therefore were socially and economically discriminated against. They had to publicly worship Roman Gods including the Emperor.
Revelation was written to these scared and faithful Christians in code to encourage them to maintain a faithful witness to the lamb, the Christ who alone could set them free. In biblical numerology, the number 666 likely referred to Emperor Nero Caesar. The followers of the beast represent all of the masses of people who are too scared to follow the lamb. The followers of the lamb are the people of the persecuted church, the faithful witnesses who see the larger picture.
However, the writer of Revelation makes it very clear that it is difficult for all but the most astute to tell the difference between the lamb and the beast. The beast appropriates the language of the lamb in order to win support and confuse the faithful. That is why it is so important to listen to the Spirit. Don't listen to what the beast is saying. But when the beast looks like the lamb it gets confusing. Think of white evangelicals supporting our current president even when he does decidedly unchristian things.
Babylon is doomed because it does not follow the Lamb. Babylon is Rome in Revelation. But in today’s context, we can call Babylon anything that takes on the guise of Empire. John’s vision calls the worship of empire evil and anyone who worships even a tiny part of it is doomed to destruction. Why? Because empire worship causes us to lose our focus upon the lamb (or Jesus—the one who is really in charge).
Empire worship makes us comfortable with injustice (when it serves the greater good.) Some would even go so far as to say that justice gets corrupted by power. Thnk ICE and it’s kangaroo courts, or the prison industrial system. All of them “legal” but are they moral?
Empire worship shows that our loyalties are more toward empire than toward God.
In Revelation the people say, “who is like the Beast (the emperor)”. He has the best words, has the biggest crowds, respects women more than anyone—just ask him. We al know it’s not true, but we follow anyway because we’re intoxicated by his power. The beast appropriates the words of the lamb and all but the faithful witness, the clear-seeing and authentic churches, are sucked into its grasp.
It’s no accident that mall in Washington is shaped like a cross presided over by a huge statue of Lincoln in his own stone temple. This is designed to blur the lines between Christianity and empire. But Revelation says, beware. Your allegiance is to God and the Lamb.
After each letter to the seven churches, the lamb says “who ever has ears, listen to what the spirit is saying to the churches.”
Revelation tells us that we need to watch who we follow. It’s about leadership. Is your leader Jesus or the emperor? The lamb or the beast? A lamb is passive and a beast is destructive. But do we then follow the lamb who destroys the followers of the beast, sending them to the lake of fire? How is this violence redemptive?
I think it’s more important who we are. Are we the faithful witnesses resisting the powers and principalities on behalf of those on the underside of empire? Or are we seduced by the beast into passive acceptance of the status quo?
The Poor People’s Campaign is organizing people from the underside of empire and imploring leaders to pay attention.
Revelation speaks to the underside of Empire. At the underside of empire are those who are victims of empire—the voices of those who exist below the surface: the people who are persecuted for who they are, for the language they speak, for the complexion of their skin, for their nationality, their religion, their sexual orientation or affectional proclivities, people who are crunched by debt, folks who are left out by a broken health care system, folks who fight in wars not because of their overt choices, but because of their circumstances.
Revelation was written to a small bunch of Christian radicals who were tempted to call it quits because they were discouraged.
John’s vision said, “Be not afraid, hold to your faith even when the world is collapsing around you and nay-sayers abound.”
The work of the Christian Church, the authentic Revelation-inspired Christian Church is to be wise as serpents and gentle as doves. It does not call for a military battle, but for a battle for our very souls. It’s so easy to be seduced by the Beast, but we are to persistently resist all of that so-called glory for the real glory that comes from following the lamb. And we only hear about it in glimpses. Like the angel chorus reminding us that Holy is the God of Hosts. Worthy is the Lamb that was slain. The angel chorus that rejoices when we speak truth to power, when we garner our best strength to join in God’s project to create a new earth here and now.
The Roman empire, says Revelation in metaphor, is doomed because it does not follow the Lamb—God’s way. It persecutes those on the underside of its dominion. But God’s audacious project is to offer a better way. And that’s why we’re here.
And so it is with that in mind that we commune together, attend to the work of this great and worthy church at our annual meeting. We seek to follow the lamb who may not get as much airplay or twitter followers, but is much more powerful than the Beast. Thanks be to God.