Reading: Revelation 5:1-14
The one thing that strikes me about the first century church is that it was completely powerless. Revelation is addressed to a church that is facing a great persecution. The first century church was filled with people at the bottom of society. It is addressed to Christians who were recently thrown out of the synagogue, they had caught the negative attention of Rome, they were blamed for the problems that happened in society. Christians were not just persecuted — but, in the stories that were being told about them, Christians were the villains.
Revelation is a letter addressed to the church in Asia Minor, which is now called Turkey. Every one of the seven churches are in major cities of the time; whether the regional capital, a major city of trade, an industrial center, or other traditional centers of power. The Roman Empire knew the names of these cities, and these cities were big enough to have the Emperor’s ear. Several of these cities had temples to deified emperors such as Caesars Augustus — two of these cities were so powerful that they suffered Emperor’s envy.
Christians remember the Emperor Domitian as the second great persecution. Many historians don’t believe that Domitian singled out the Christians — but whether or not he had Christians in mind, the Christians suffered greatly under his policies. Domitian decided to emphasize traditional Roman religion. He personally had a temple built to Jupiter, and he worked to increase the practice of worshiping dead Emperors. His first act as Emperor was to declare that his late brother Titus, the former emperor, was a god, and he had temple built for the worship of his father and brother.
Christians refused to participate in Emperor worship. They would not say Caesar is Lord concerning the living emperor, and they would not pray to the dead emperors. In many places, this meant exclusion from Roman society and a ban from trade. In some cases, it meant physical danger. Whether or not Christians were singled out, their lives were being destroyed by the empire — and their beliefs were not accepted by society. Christians had no power, and any power or wealth a Christian might have was quickly being taken away.
In Revelation 5, we see an image of the slaughtered lamb on the throne, in all trappings of authority. The lamb is called the lion of Judah, the root of David, the conqueror. The lamb had the authority to open the sealed document — a document that had a seal on it to show that it was not disturbed between the sender and the one receiving it; in other words a document that was written for the king’s eyes only. This picture in Revelation makes it clear that Christ is in the ultimate authority.
Now, there are different ways of interpreting this. One common way is to see that Christ’s throne is above all other thrones. We can easily quote Paul in a way that suggests that every king is under Christ, and they are, as political authorities, authorities to do good for the kingdom of heaven established on Earth.
The idea that the emperor is God’s agent on Earth is a pretty easy concept when the Emperor is Christian, and the state religion is Christianity. This was the dominant understanding after the 4th century throughout Christian Europe. It made sense, because you had a Christian king, and he was crowned king by a Christian bishop. The church clearly recognized the king’s right to rule.
This understanding is fairly popular in the United States as well; and why shouldn’t it be? Almost all of our presidents were publicly Christian, and Christian ethics are commonly discussed in congress when crafting laws. The inaugural prayer service has been a tradition since the founding of our nation; it is usually held at the National Cathedral, and it does give a sense that faith has a rather public role in our government. One of the first public actions of a president is to appear in a religious service that lasts for three and a half hours.
When Christianity is on friendly terms with the state, it is easy to picture the rulers as God’s subjects — who will be judged by God according to whether or not they governed according to God’s law. When we see the officials of the church and the officials of the state standing together, and the church blessing the state; it is hard to think otherwise.
The picture of Christ having the ultimate authority might not have had the same implications to the 1st century church. Things are very different now than when Revelation was written. One thing that stands out to me in this passage is that the lamb on the throne was slain. We have to remember that Jesus died on a Roman cross; Roman soldiers stood guard around his grave to make sure that he stayed buried — and when he rose from the dead, he conquered the act of Rome, and Rome’s military might. The picture of the Lamb that was slain, but still conquered isn’t a picture of Christ putting the emperor into power, but a picture of a Christ who’s power was far greater than the empire.
At this point, interpretation becomes difficult for me. I grew up with the idea that I lived in an effectively Christian culture, and everything that I saw around me supported this idea. There was also an idea that there were forces that were trying to reduce Christian influence from our world and culture — there of course were many stories that could be given as examples of this as well. I grew up aware of the culture war, and knowing which side was the right side.
On the other hand, I learned in history classes about all of the evil that was done by people who claimed to be God’s representatives on Earth. History taught me how much corruption was possible in a Christian nation — especially if people were afraid to touch the leaders that God supported, leaving it so that at the end of the day they were only accountable to God. Learning this part of history, I was somewhat skeptical of my own Christian nation.
Conversely, I learned about the evil done by secular nations. I learned about the viciousness of communist governments; as a student of Church history, I learned about how brutal the Roman government was for the first few centuries after Christ. I also learned how brutal society was. I learned about abandoning children to death, I learned about a world where only the powerful mattered, and where life was not treated as sacred. I also learned how Christian ideas seeped into culture and changed the hearts and minds of the people. I learned how Christian Rome eventually ended blood sports, I learned how people started making a real effort to care for the sick, and to save unwanted babies.
When I look at the difference between Christian Rome and Rome before Constantine — it is hard for me to regret that the Emperor became Christian. Even with all its rough edges, I prefer Christian Europe to pre-Christian Europe. I understand the challenge Christianity had in adapting to its new place of privilege, considering that the New Testament was addressed to a Christianity facing existential threats, living in a hostile world with an uncertain survival. I much prefer the world where the Empire and the Church are friends; I much prefer the world inhabited by great theologians trying to understand this new situation.
When I look at history and see all the ways the church has failed to be the church; ways where it represented the Roman Emperor rather than Christ, I see that when Jesus said he did not intend to establish a Kingdom of this world, the church won’t be successful at establishing godliness by using the government. The problem I see in history, including recently, is that Christianity can be distracted by political power, begin to compromise in order to hold onto that power.
Jesus taught us that he did not wish to build a kingdom of this world. Jesus did not want to be the emperor, Jesus did not want the church to become a political party — you see, the kingdom of heaven is lasting in a way that political parties and dynasties are not. The kingdom of heaven is not thrones, nor strong men but it is salt, it is light, it is mustard.
I think that the way that the Kingdom of Heaven changes the kingdoms of Earth is by changing everyday people. When we look to governments to change the world, we make a mistake. Governments can make laws, they can enforce laws, but they do nothing to change the human heart. Christianity started with a few powerless people; people who learned to have faith, and to live according to love, even when love is difficult. It started with a few people who had no power, but were willing to die for what they believed in — and who would do what was right, even when the world was wrong.
For centuries, innocent Christians died; people who were slandered, but who did nothing but good to their neighbors, and the known good character eventually defeated slander. Eventually innocence defeated false convictions. Eventually people sought to become more like the Christians — more Christlike — Christians were salt, light yeast, and eventually Christians were everywhere and changed everything.
I have come to believe that the way Christians change the world isn’t by changing governments directly. I believe that Christianity changes the world by changing something far more lasting — Christianity changes the hearts of the people.