This is the chandelier falling at the end of Phantom. Or the Death Star exploding in Return of the Jedi. This is the last scene of a Transformers movie. The giant robot is about to fall from a great height and hit the ground and explode. We’ve seen the depths of Babylon’s evil and over sixteen chapters John has teased us with the huge explosive downfall that’s coming. We are primed and ready. We have gone through our three cycles of seven and at last on our final seven the trigger is pulled.
This image of the woman is wanton, lascivious, brazen (enjoy your vocab for the day). Its crudely sexual and overly lush. The goddess Roma was a prim deity of honor and victory and respect. But John pulls back the curtain. He pulls no punches. She is the great whore. A harlot dressed like a queen, blood drenched and drunk.
This image isn’t an accident. John calls Rome the Great Whore because she is ultimately a seducer. Her first power isn’t the violence or oppression, its her siren-call, her ability to draw the people of the world to her with promises of power and riches and pleasure. This is what Revelation is warning against. The great sin in the mind of the Revelation communities is to give up and give in. Many Christians were making compromises with Rome that they felt were minor but ultimately amounted to idolatry.
This horrible ruler is propped up on a throne of evil. She literally sits on the Dragon/beasts. Their ten horns are their great power. Their seven heads are the seven hills of Rome and seven Caesars. The counting of caesars here gets a little wonky depending on how you interpret the history of the emperors. Some emperors ruled only very briefly which makes the number difficult to figure out precisely. The only two that are truly important are the 6th head, which is likely a reference to Nero’s recovery from a near fatal wound, and the seventh which is likely Domitian. Both of them were responsible for the few periods of particularly harsh oppression of Christians and instituting official policies of violence against them. John was perfectly willing to fudge the numbers slightly to carry the numerology and image of the seven hills.
These kings are somehow interwoven with the beast and the Whore. They join together in violence against the world and for a tiny window they will be successful. But John reminds us that all such victories by evil are not held long. God is already coming to overturn their victories.
The many waters are all the peoples and nations of the world. It’s a mercantile image. It would have conjured the image of trading and traveling and getting very very rich moving things from one place to another. It’s the Kings and the Merchants who profit most from Rome but their relationship is not love or peace or justice but crude self-interest. But its also the image for destruction and chaos and death. When God’s indignation falls on Rome they will turn on her and take part in her destruction. The great sea of destruction she has ruled over will come crashing down on her and destroy her.
Chapter 18 could almost be called “Once more, with feeling.” Rome is fallen, the kings and merchants who profited from her mourn. The city is destroyed utterly, ruined and spoiled for all future use. The song reminds us that no matter how great she was, her violence and oppression and unrighteousness drew down God’s wrath on her. There is no Empire on earth great enough to outrun God and the consequences of their own actions.
This chapter is an exclamation point on John’s plea to the unfaithful churches. “Come out of her” is another crudely sexual image. John is saying, turn away from her blood-stained rewards before its too late. Don’t be an accomplice to this great evil. Return your heart to God before the sky comes crashing down and its all over.
Ah, finally our last set of seven! God is bringing our story towards its finale. Chapter 15 goes back to Exodus once again. The people are gathered at the edge of the sea where they will sing the song of Moses. A glassy sea is a body of water perfectly still, perfectly control under God’s will. In ancient symbolism the ocean or sea was often a symbol of death or change or destruction. John tells us that in God’s presence death and destruction itself are stilled by His power (the sea or its absence will pop up again shortly).
Once again our plagues use the Exodus imagery. Boils, fire, waters into blood, hail and a parting sea. Our spiral of plagues has come down to its point of highest intensity and greatest focus. The worst plagues on the smallest point, falling directly on the evil Empire itself.
This is the shortest of four or five different angles from which we will see the fall of Babylon. This final plague, the seventh bowl, has all the signs of theophany. In this version there is no battle. God’s oncoming presence (signified by the lightning and thunder and quaking) shakes apart the empire. In the next two chapters we will watch its slow motion fall to earth.
As we said last time, it’s important to remember that these are not 21 separate events but this same series of 7 seen in escalating scale. As we come to the end of a cycle the sense of time becomes strange. Here we return to the image of the prayers of the saints, a tangible presence rising up in the heavenly throne room. When they’re thrown down on the Earth we see again the signs of theophany, earthquakes, clouds and lightning. The prayers of the Saints are not wasted, God responds by drawing nearer to the Creation. So we stand paused at the end of this first cycle, the seals. God is right at the edge of the Creation, silently waiting for the final moment to bring all things to resolution.
And jarringly John throws us back to the beginning. A new cycle, this time of trumpets, begins. This section offer us another perspective on the same events, a series of catastrophes which unravel the wider Roman world, ending again with God drawing near.
This time John is bringing together two different series of images. The first is the thematic imagery of the Exodus and the 10 plagues. Our first trumpet evokes the 7th plague, bringing fire and hail. Our second trumpet is the 1st plague, the falling mountain turning the seas to blood. The fourth trumpet evokes the 9th plague, leaving the whole world in darkness. And the consuming insects arise at the 5th trumpet. We’ll jump back to what exactly this Egyptian motif means in a second.
Layered on top of this Exodus imagery is a theme of sweeping natural disaster. All four of the classic regions of nature are coming apart, the land, the seas, the rivers and the skies. This is all of Creation starting to come apart at the seams, a response to God’s silence and withdrawal from the unrepentant world. There’s nowhere to go.
The 5th and 6th trumpet are some of the strangest images in Revelation. Where we just witnessed the natural elements turning against Rome and the Roman world now we see the personified corruption and evil of the human world destroying itself. Our Locusts are not some otherworldly evil but the very real tangible, consuming evil of Rome and its corruption turned back on itself. Their leader is called a “king,” they arise from the earth and their leader’s name is Destruction and Apollyon (a pun on the emperor’s self-made association with the god Apollo). The emperor is portrayed as a king of the damned and the demonic, heading a corrupt army ravaging his own kingdom and hastening its death.
The 6th trumpet evokes images of outside invasion. The fear of cavalrymen invading from across a great river taps the Roman fear of the Parthians, the one great military power they could never overtake, a constant threat to Rome’s rule. When we take all 6 of these together we see a systematic collapse of Rome (much how it historically happened) natural disasters coupled with internal corruption and outside invasion.
But why does God ultimately do this? These things sound horrific, tortures and calamities falling on the world. Well, we have a couple of points to dig through. First, every single one of these events uses the same verb the passive form of “give.” God allows these things to unfold. God is not causing the events but rather God is allowing what would naturally occur to continue without the protection and shelter God had previously sustained. Without God’s sustaining power the natural world collapses on humanity, one catastrophe after another. Without God’s will at work, the powers and principalities built by humanity to help themselves become evil forces which dominate and destroy them. God isn’t directly punishing the world but instead allowing it to fall under the consequences of its own brokenness and evil.
We also have a literary distinction. In the ancient world there was little focus on individuals. We are accustomed to a different kind of narrative that zeroes in on specific characters, their motivations and lives and goals. In ancient literature, as harsh as it sounds, sometimes people and groups of people function only as set pieces, showing something without necessarily bringing you the baggage of a fully detailed character. The focus here is not on those who die but the whole world of those who witness their deaths and still don’t repent. The character isn’t “Bill who gets killed in demon locust attack” but “The sinful and rebellious world,” These fractional population deaths (we’re up to 1/3 from ¼ in the Seven Seals), are blows against the world which can’t see past its own corrupt gains.
And finally, continuing the Exodus theme, these woes are not meant to simply punish the world but to bring it to repentance. This isn’t random, unavoidable damage. The last thought John leaves us with in chapter 9 is one of repentance.
Starting in Revelation chapter 6 the organizational structure of the book changes dramatically. Chapter 1 was our introduction. 2-3 gave us a snapshot of the world and the struggles faced by the churches. 4-5 told us of God and the heavenly throne room and the role of Jesus.
Now we come to the part of Revelation most people are most familiar with (or think they are). Chapters 6-7 tell us of the seven seals, the first in three series of 7 apocalyptic woes. If we try to understand these events as a linear series of 21 events we will quickly get confused. Instead we need to understand them as the same cycle of judgment told in three escalating sequences, each one the same events but growing in intensity. They show a series of judgments or woes (the part of Revelation people talk about the most), usually one or more interlude scenes and then they come to a sudden stop before the next series of 7 begins. This cycle of interruption will repeat twice (7 seals and 7 trumpets) before the true conclusion (the 7 bowls).
Our first cycle begins with the classic image of the four Horsemen. This series of judgments is keyed specifically for Roman audiences. Each of the Horsemen represents a very specific fear, some unsteady load bearing pillar Rome is sitting on. This isn’t just a portrait of generic woes but a very specific outline of how a great human empire can come apart at the seams.
The first rider, the White Rider, with his white robe and bow, is the image of the Parthian archer, a specific neighboring country whom Rome was never able to conquer. He is in some ways a parody of our Jesus. Each one conquers but the Parthian rider returns to the old fashioned violent sort of conquest. He represents foreign invasion from beyond Rome’s borders.
The red rider is the collapse of the Pax Romana. He doesn’t just take “peace” as a generic concept. He overthrows Rome’s control over their conquered peoples. The powerful elites of Rome lived in constant fear of the people they conquered, waiting for the day their pain and suffering finally outgrew their fear of the Roman army and they violently overthrew their governors. The White Rider is real War, an outside invasion by an army. The Red Rider is rebellion and violent unrest against Rome.
The black rider is economic collapse. Rome was economically unsteady to begin with. Different segments of the Empire relied on others to produce the goods they needed and the Roman government relied on constant conquest to keep growing its tax and resource base to support the capital and the army. The specific image they give is an ironic kind of famine, the sort caused by a breadbasket province like Egypt rebelling or somehow being lost. The staple foods like breads and grains become wildly expensive while, ironically, oil and wine (luxury items) keep their price. This was even more intimidating than it sounds because imperially subsidized bread was one of the ways the empire controlled the poor masses. In today’s world this might look alot like the 2008 economic woes, where many working class people had great financial losses but the handful at the very top came through relatively unscathed.
And of course the pale rider, death, who was the final and ultimate fear of Rome. This one doesn’t need much explaining. Death sums up the other three riders, together they will devastate a quarter of the known world.
But here we see the weird attention deficit of John’s vision. In the fifth seal he suddenly transitions from these Roman nightmares to a vision of the throne room. Where those who have already been martyred for God await God’s final judgment and resurrection. The “altar” here is Rome’s courts and executioners, their faithful and innocent deaths a lamb-like sacrifice patterned after Jesus. This vision was an important reminder that those who suffered and died were not forgotten but close to God’s heart, the cause of his judgment. If you were a 1st century Christian suffering under violent persecution, seeing friends and neighbors hurt and killed, this vision is an essential assurance that God is not only aware but moved by what happens to those who love Him.
The sixth seal has the markers of theophany, an appearance by God. Strange unnatural events like eclipses and earthquakes accompany God’s presence. Taken together they tell us that God is drawing near, that God is going to make an appearance to put things to their final rest.
Instead of the expected 7th seal, John’s vision pulls us into another aside. The classic figure of 144,000 is not at all mysterious. It uses numbers we are already familiar with multiplied together. This tells us to take their meanings together. In this case we have 12, 12 and 1000. 12 is the number of tribes and disciples, it represents those who worship God under the old and new covenants. 1000 is a multiplier of scale, telling us this is a huge number (not necessarily just a literal 144,000). This is the living church across all the Creation.
Then John pulls back our camera even further. We see not only the living Saints but those who have gone on before them. This is a vision of the church triumphant, the church of all the believers, living and dead, of all nations and peoples and language coming together in worship. This is an important reminder to the early Christians who are persecuted and isolated, seeing that they are a part of a grand church of all God’s people.
Once again we place ourselves in this persecuted 1st century mindset. When you are a suffering, persecuted religious minority under a brutal and idolatrous imperial structure you would feel incredibly alone. In the Southern American context you can usually see another church from the front door of your church. But in this first century world churches are isolated from one another, swimming in a sea of Grecco-Roman paganism. Every community event and celebration would be steeped in pagan religious practices. Not only was there the immediate and tangible fear of outright persecution but also the slow subtle separation that refusing to participate in pagan events would create. This vision John relates reminds these Christians that they are not alone but part of something larger than the suffering they’re experiencing.
Our seventh seal actually extends slightly into chapter 8. We have seen the escalating movement, we see the storm clouds of God’s presence gathering at the edge of Creation. Everything seems about to unfold and then…silence.
Revelation 2 continues the introductory section of Revelation. Though using more colorful images and language than Paul, John the Revelator begins laying out an epistle-esque (or epistolary if you’re feeling fancy) series of notes to the 7 churches. We probably shouldn’t worry too much about whether these were intended for the specific churches they were addressed to or whether they were meant to speak to the whole church. What they do instead for us is start to give us a picture of the kind of situations that John was writing to.
Since we left Paul and his letters and the book of Acts a lot had changed for the church. In the early days of the church Christianity was viewed as another school of Judaism. And Judaism had unique protections under Roman law. Rome had a great appreciation for ancient things and Judaism was one of the oldest practiced faiths in their day. They had exemptions from conscription into the army and certain Roman religious practices which were mandated in other parts of the empire. But in 70 AD Israel’s last and final rebellion against Rome was crushed with devastating force, costing them both their protections and the temple itself.
This unrest accelerated the separation of Jew and Christian. Suddenly the broader Greco-Roman world was becoming aware of Christians as a unique religion in their own right. But Christians, much like the Jewish faith they were slowly separating from, were a problem to the Roman world.
For Rome there was no divide between church and state, secular (non-religious) and religious. Everything was both. To be a good citizen (or resident since most folks weren’t real citizens), not only meant paying taxes but participating in a variety of religious activities. You couldn’t just follow Roman law, you also needed to worship the goddess Roma (personification of Rome) and in some areas even worship current and previous Caesars. This was the Roman version of pledging allegiance to the flag or singing the national anthem (but more hardcore).
This was a huge problem for the monotheistic Christians. They couldn’t worship Caesar or Roma. This made them look very very suspicious bordering on traitorous. If you didn’t worship Roma or Caesar your other behavior is called into question. And in fact this “atheism” which Christians were accused of (for not believing in a wide world of gods but just one) also separated them from social, business and community life. The coliseums, athletic events, festivals and celebrations, local tradesman groups and even birthday and funeral celebrations all required elements of pagan worship. They would make sacrifices to Artemis and Zeus or chthonic hero cults like Hercules. This meant that not only did Christians look atheistic and un-patriotic but they also seemed to be intentionally isolating themselves from their local communities.
Imagine if instead of the flag the US had a giant golden eagle called Starry. And if you wanted to go to school, or a baseball game or Target you had to worship Starry. This was a huge issue for the early churches. They were seen as immoral, dangerous and hateful because of their monotheism.
The situations John describes in the different churches all seem to be different ways of dealing with these issues. When we put the first four letters together we get a portrait of a widespread problem. John uses metaphorical language like “Jezebel” (no one in this time would have called their child Jezebel), “Satan’s throne,” and “The Synagogue of Satan” to talk about how this issue was impacting their churches. These Nicolaitans, together with this “Jezebel” were probably people who considered themselves Christian who were convincing other Christians that worshiping Caesar and Roma (or just pretending to) was somehow OK to God. Jezebel was a well known Hebrew image of both seduction and idolatry, a common prophetic metaphor. The “Synagogue of Satan” was probably a church or literal synaoguge which was buying into these views and mixing Imperial-worship with the worship of God. “Satan’s throne” would have been a literal temple to Roma and the Caesars (something we know was found in several of these cities). Balaam was probably a teacher or faction who were allowing small acts of idolatry like taking part in functions in pagan temples.
We see here that John has no problem mingling Satan, the Devil and Rome. He sees Rome with its idolatry and hatred and violence as a clear personification or instrument of evil. This mingling will help us understand some of the more bizarre images we’ll find later.
This might sound like a small thing but remember that Christians were already dying for this. If you refused to denounce or blaspheme Jesus and worship Roma and the Caesars you could be jailed, beaten or put to death. Just because the Romans were kind of tepid, half-hearted or disorganized about these early persecutions doesn’t mean they weren’t still horrific and violent (that was kind of Rome’s default setting). The letters of Pliny and Trajan from around 110 AD, help show both the boring officialness of Roman persecution layered in tight with the awful violence and callous harm. They are very short and you should read the whole thing here
So John’s audience has some very harsh decisions to make. Do you remain faithful to God even if it costs you everything? And what does this have to do with the sevenfold reference to conquering that John has made, using the term in the close of each letter to the churches? Who are the conquerors? We’ll stay with these questions as we continue on in Revelation.
During this season of Lent we spend much time meditating on the Cross. From Ash Wednesday to Good Friday we will have our eyes fixed on Calvary’s distant mount, as each day brings us closer to the central event of the Christian faith. But for all its prevalence, for all of the retelling its easy to misunderstand what exactly we see at Golgotha.
In most of our churches there is a single cross fixed in a place of great prominence. It might be a golden table piece or a wooden construct suspended from the ceiling. Sometimes in front of our churches or on a hillside we might see three crosses, the cross of Christ joined by those of the two “bandits.”
But this is misleading. We talk about the crucifixion like it was a surprise, like it was a deviation from the norm. We imagine that Jesus (or if we are being fastidious, we include the two bandits) was the only person in history to be crucified. Like Rome conspired to create some novel singular event which could take on religious significance.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. The depth and power of the Cross of Jesus is not that crucifixion was rare but in that it wasn’t. Crucifixion was horrifyingly monstrously common. Jesus did not hang on a cross by himself or as part of a trio but instead he joined a field of dozens or hundreds or even thousands of crosses. One of as many as a hundred thousand Jews to be executed by Rome during its reign.
Rome was a vast empire with a powerful, well trained, well equipped army. But that army was woefully insufficient to control the huge empire they had amassed. Instead Rome ruled the world through breath taking, gut wrenching fear. The Roman army was a vanguard that conquered distant lands. But then they moved on to the next war zone, leaving the maintenance of the Roman police state in the hands of small garrisons or local militias.
Because of this Rome lived in constant fear of uprisings and rebellions. An organized, widespread uprising could rip the Empire apart. So they created the Pax Romana. Rome would enforce a bloody, fearful peace on the world. As long as taxes were paid and all respect and honor was paid to Rome, its Caesars and its gods, their conquered neighbors could live in some cruel parody of peace.
But the moment payment faltered or the smallest slight or insult was offered Rome would retaliate with awful overwhelming force. Long before Iraq, Rome was unveiling shock and awe on the world. And rather than smart bombs or bunker busters the primary instrument of Rome’s shock and awe, the weapon that enforced the Pax Romana, was the cross.
When the high priest Caiaphas speaks to his peers about Jesus John takes it as prophecy
But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, ‘You know nothing at all! You do not understand that it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed.’ (John 11)
But Caiaphas is being horrifically literal. If Jesus stirs too much discontent Rome might send in an army to “maintain peace.” The Jewish people were intimately familiar with that kind of “pacification.” Magdala, the homeland and namesake of Mary Magdalene, was subject to two such horrific invasions by the Roman army, once in 52 BCE and again in 4. These mass crucifixions and enslavements would have been recent history to Jesus and his contemporaries (they were devastated again in 67 AD).
Most of these punishments came in response to “banditry,” which was a Roman catch all not only for thieves but also (depending on your worldview) either Jewish freedom fighters or anti-Roman terrorists. But Rome didn’t particularly care about punishing the specific individuals involved. They would crucify all the surrounding villagers just to make a point.
This brings us back to Jesus and his Cross. Jesus didn’t come down to do something uniquely messianic. Instead in Jesus God came down and joined the world where it was, in this case hanging on a Cross. Jesus took his place on Calvary to hang in fellowship with the bleeding, fearful crucified world.
The message of the Cross is not only that God died for our sins but that when we are at the lowest, bloodiest, most beaten and broken down God is still with us. Immanuel is not just in the manger but on the Cross. The heart of God, open to all the pain and fear and suffering of a people broken down beneath sin and death and the corrupt powers of the world, didn’t stand by but came alongside us. And when death and sin and the powers had spent themselves in violence and shame and all the tools they use to silence and destroy humankind, God’s resurrection spoke the final words over the world’s power. Enough. No More. In the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus God blunted the swords of death and violence. The new last word is life. Unbreakable, unbeatable abundant life.
The crucifixions didn’t stop. Rome didn’t fall. But their power was unmasked. God has sided with the crucified and stands with them still. The cross itself transformed from a symbol of death to a symbol of victory and life.
This Lent we turn our eyes to the crucified world. We look for those who are persecuted, suffering and beaten down because Jesus is still among them. We speak truth to evil and to power, denouncing the crucifying powers in our world today. And we repent for those times we are found amongst those powers, when we profit or take pleasure in the suffering of others. And together we look forward to the last Sunday, when God’s inbreaking kingdom at last abolishes death and violence alike.