‘Where there is no vision, the people perish’ , says the proverb, a verse from the ancient Wisdom Literature that precedes the Apocalypse by many Centuries and sets well the tone for our ongoing journey into the book of Revelation. And for the believers of the first century walking through the city of Ephesus, the home of the first Christian community to receive a letter in John’s apocalypse, the importance of vision could hardly be overstated.
As the power of the Empire weighed heavily on their shoulders they were in danger of drift. Not that it was all bad, in fact there is much praise for this young congregation: ‘I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have tested those who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary (Revelation 2:2-3).’ But it was the sentence at the end of the letter which grabs our attention: ‘Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first (Revelation 2:4-5).’ The believers were in a danger of missing the most important thing.
As a city Ephesus was situated on the far reaches of the Empire and sat strategically as a trading route between East and West. It was a city of commerce – a trading centre between two cultures and the Agora was the ‘marketplace’ where the business of buying and selling happened. Entrance to the Agora was by way of an acknowledgement to the Caesar as part of the Imperial Cult. The offering of incense was said to allow for a mark (possibly of ink) to be put on the hand of the person. It was this mark that allowed people to participate in the free trade of the Agora – and so, the question faced by the Christians was: Should they receive the mark of the beast?
For life to stay on course, we need vision and this is especially true when we are under pressure and without it we have the propensity to drift. We can drift in the face of temptation, testing, trials and persecutions. The people of God were being tested – they needed to live with vision and this is what Revelation 4 and 5 provides.
We all need a centring vision from which everything else gets its frame of reference. The ability to stay focused, to keep on track, to resist the pressures around you and to keep the main thing the main thing – that’s what these chapters offer. Whenever we take our eyes off Jesus, we start to lose faith as we are distracted from our devotion to the Alpha and Omega. If we fail to see Jesus as both the source of life - Alpha, and the culmination of life - Omega, then the priorities between these two realities can easily go off track.
The vision unfolds in this way, ‘After this I looked, and there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, ‘Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this (Revelation 4:1).’
The invitation is to come up here. We need to change our position and our perspective if we are to see what God has for us. For John this meant walking through the door that had been opened to him. The doorway leads to the reality of what lies not only at the heart of the vision but is also the pinnacle of creation. All of John’s testing, trials and isolation (he’s incarcerated on Patmos as a result of following Jesus) is about to find a new centring reality - his life is to be built around this.
The imagery that follows is as dramatic as it is beautiful. A rainbow that shines like an emerald encircles a throne which is surrounded by twenty-four other thrones on which are sitting elders. Already we know that who or whatever is at the centre of this scene is of greatest importance - we are being led into a throne room - a place from which everything else in life, and indeed the universe should take its frame of reference.
Not only is this so, but for the hearers of the first century something else is at work. John’s vision is not only pointing to the majesty of God, but it is also subverting the power of Empire through drawing a comparison between the true power that’s been unleashed in the world which is not the dominance of the Empire, but rather the sacrifice of the Lamb. Enter Domitian.
Domitian was the 9th of the Caesar’s and notably one of the cruellest. He created Ephesus as the centre of Imperial Cult worship and established the Domitian Games – a spectacle that drew crowds of up to 80,000 people and he reigned during the time of John. In fact, some of have surmised it may have been Domitian who removed this irritant of a pastor prophet to the isle of Patmos.
Domitian reigned between 81 A.D. to 96 A.D. His mission, as well as ruling the Empire with efficiency was to restate the Imperial Cult which had lost some of the influence previously established under Augustus. He’s said to have demanded to go by the title: ‘My Lord and My God.’ And when writing to his subjects he would get his officials to address letters: ‘Our Lord and God commands you…’
It’s said that wherever he went there was a choir of 24 singers chanting: ‘Our Lord and our God you are worthy to receive honour, glory and power.’
From the few fragments of Domitian in the historical accounts, you get further glimpses of how ruthless he was. One records his attendance at a Gladiatorial event where one of the spectators heckled a gladiator in the ring. Domitian simply pointed out the man and instructed he be thrown into the ring and fed to the wild animals. A further account recalls one of the priests who offended him, so he instructed she be buried alive.
On one of the statues of Domitian, he can be seen holding a scroll in his hand. The scroll was key to ruling in the Empire. It contained writing on both sides of all the divine names of the Caesar. It was symbolic of the fact that he was the only person who was worthy to open the scroll and to break the seal.
The Domitian Games
The Domitian Games were famous for drawing massive crowds of people. They would begin with the leaders of the various provinces coming before him – he would then address the leaders of those provinces, thus: ‘To you the leader of … I have this for you, and I have this against you.’ The address would conclude with the charge that if they didn’t deal with the issues pointed out then he would come and wipe them out.
Worship would follow where the priests and spectators gathered were dressed in white. The priests would wear crowns of gold on their heads and on the front of the crowns would be written the divine titles of Domitian – a way of reminding everyone who he was as worship ascended from the gathered throng. The words would be chanted: ‘Great are you, our Lord and God, Worthy are you to receive honour and power and glory. Worthy are you Lord of the earth, to inherit the Kingdom. Lord of Lord, highest of high, Lord of the earth, God of all things. Lord God and Saviour for eternity.’
A four-horse race would be one of the highlights of the games where each horse was a different colour. At the end of the games after further contests and gladiatorial competitions a man would come out into the arena to clean all the dead bodies and animals out of the ring. The one who headed this role wore a mask of a classic hero called, Hades.
This was Domitian and this was his Empire. The historian Seutonius wrote: ‘He (Domitian) loved to hear “Hail to the Lord.”’
Subverting the Empire?
Is this John adopting the imagery of his day, taking it and subverting what is around him to declare there is someone greater than Caesar to whom we offer our allegiance? He is walking a dangerous path. But the imagery of the Empire is not the only picture in John’s mind, as the vision unfolds the ancient apocalyptic language of the ancient Jews also plays its part in forging a centring vision for the people of God.
‘In the centre, around the throne, were four living creatures, and they were covered with eyes, in front and in back. The first living creature was like a lion, the second was like an ox, the third had a face like a man, the fourth was like a flying eagle. Each of the four living creatures had six wings and was covered with eyes all around, even under its wings. Day and night they never stop saying: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.” (Revelation 4:6-9).’
The seer (John) is shown the four living creatures of a lion, ox, man and eagle, reminiscent of Ezekiel’s vision which merges with Isaiah’s vision of chapter six as a circle is created within a circle with the throne in the middle. And perhaps this is the point – a circle within a circle whereby we are continually drawn back to what lies at the heart of it.
John’s vision draws heavily from the Prophets as if to remind God’s people who they are. For again, when we face trouble it’s easy for us to lose perspective – even to forget who we are. It’s a majestic vision of the Divine which keeps us on track. We may not live with the fear of persecution, but we all know about the temptation to put other things before God. The twin track message of the prophets – idolatry on the one hand, and injustice on the other are as real today as they’ve always been and we need to heed the invitation to ‘Come up here’ if we are to resist in the face of fear, apathy or deceit. But the vision isn’t over yet.
A Greco Roman Play – Enter the Lamb, stage right
‘Then I saw in the right hand of him who sat on the throne a scroll with writing on both sides and sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming in a loud voice, “Who is worthy to break the seals and open the scroll?” (Revelation 5:1-2).’ The seven scrolls and seals represent the good things of the world. His intention is to return the world to original goodness and human flourishing - that’s the drama. God is the one who holds a plan if it could but be opened! But there is no one found worthy and so the drama unfolds only to turn to tragedy because, ‘no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth could open the scroll or even look inside it. I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside (Revelation 5:3-4).’
The vision is now played out in the style of a Greco Roman Stage Play and contains all the elements of such with drama, tragedy, comedy, and chorus. John’s vision is being portrayed in the language of the day. The drama unfolds as the search for someone who is worthy to open the scroll continues. How tragic it would be if you believe the world would continue as it is because no one can be found to implement the plan. But then one of the elders says to John, ‘Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed (Revelation 5:5).’
And John turns to see and with a twist in the plot we turn from tragedy to comedy for there before him is not a lion but a lamb! He expects to see a strong, powerful beast and what he sees is a meek lamb as the scene is set for all that follows. The beasts to be found later in the vision are not to be conquered by another beast - but by a lamb. A new ‘power’ has been loosed in the world as lamb power becomes a new way of God working as out of the wings of the stage a chorus erupts as they sang a new song, saying: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth (Revelation 5:9-10).’
‘Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they were saying: “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honour and glory and power, for ever and ever!” The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped (Revelation 5:11-14).’
As Gorman notes, ‘The central and centring vision of Revelation is a vision of God and the Lamb, and specifically of the worship of God and the Lamb.’
And further he writes, ‘Both John and we, as readers, await the unveiling and identification of this powerful, conquering messianic Lion; perhaps both John and we suspect that the elder is directing our attention to Jesus, Lion of Judah and Son of David—and he is. But in “perhaps the most mind-wrenching ‘rebirth of images’ in literature,” the vision John receives and describes for us is not what anyone would expect. It is the vision of a slaughtered Lamb, not a ferocious Lion. “The shock of this reversal,” writes Richard Hays, “discloses the central mystery of the Apocalypse: God overcomes the world not through a show of force but through the suffering and death of Jesus, ‘the faithful witness.’
Following the Lamb
The power of the Lamb stands in direct opposition to all they can see in the Empire – and perhaps against all we witness in our world today. It leads us to ask questions of how the church functions in the world – what does the Kingdom of God, led by the image of the lamb that was slain look like? This is how the Apostle John sees it: ‘This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth (1 John 3:16-18).’
We have in so many ways a problem with power, what it is and how it functions, and we feel this particularly keenly in the West where culture is presenting as post Christian from what was once Judaeo Christian. I understand that concern and why we might feel when our voice is being marginalised, we must shout louder in order to be heard. But volume on its own rarely achieves anything.
For many in the church there is a feeling that ‘power’ is being taken away and the reaction to this is often fear. But the vision of Revelation 4 and 5 calls for a different response. ‘Come up here’ is the invitation – take a different perspective and build with different priorities. The charge is to gaze upon the lamb that was slain; to look in wonder on he who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seal. For regardless of our situation: persecution, fear, testing or temptation everything looks different when we turn our eyes upon Jesus.
The situation between the First and Twenty First Century is in many ways different but the challenge is the same: How do we live close to Jesus. The answer? To lift him high and to have a centring vision that frames every thought, conversation and action. As Gorman writes: ‘If there is no centre, there is no circumference. People who do not worship are swept into a vast restlessness, epidemic in the world, with no steady direction and no sustained purpose.’
As for the power play between the two images of lion and lamb, N.T. Wright goes someway to redress the balance.
‘There have been, down the years, plenty of lion-Christians. Yes, they think, Jesus died for us; but now God’s will is to be done in the lion-like fashion, through brute force and violence, to make the world come into line, to enforce God’s will. No, replies John; think of the lion, yes, but gaze at the lamb.’
‘And there have been plenty of lamb-Christians. Yes, they think, Jesus may have been ‘the lion of Judah’, but that’s a political idea which we should reject because salvation consists in having our sins wiped away so that we can get out of this compromised world and go off to heaven instead. No, replies John; gaze at the lamb, but remember that it is the lion’s victory that he has won.’
There is much a foot within the Church as she seeks to take stock of what Christian Faith will look like for a new generation – what should be held dearly, and what less so. These are not easy times in this regard as the hot topics of the day test the brightest brains in both technical scholarship and pastoral care. What we do know is that the future will not be a replay of the past, the navigation of complexity calls for cool heads, warm hearts and courageous souls but over this we should not fear. And how should we approach this future? Van Shore sets the tone well, ‘In Revelation, it is through this imagery of the Lamb that John’s audience is confronted with understanding “conquering” and “faithfulness” in terms of sacrifice and faithful witness, rather than physical violence or military might.’ Indeed – and this ought not to surprise us both from the life of the Christ we follow – and from the vision that we see here. The way of hope is always trodden on the pathway of sacrifice and peace – and peace rarely comes before a sacrifice is made. Which leaves us well to conclude with the words of the Apostle James who wrote a dispersed group of believers: ‘… the wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere. Peacemakers who sow in peace reap a harvest of righteousness (James 3:17-18).’ And a life like that comes from those who have put the vision of the Lamb first.