+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
So, last week we talked about the book of Revelation’s genre and its protagonist. Today we get to start with the creepy stuff- four beasts, twenty four elders, and the lamb with seven horns and seven eyes. Before we get to that, though, one might ask why Revelation has so much weird imagery. The short answer is that the apocalypse (though, as I mentioned last week, it is meant as a revelatory text) contained a politically dangerous and thus coded message. It’s not coded in the sense of requiring some sort of decoder ring or invisible ink detector. Don’t go out and read the Bible Code, the popular book from about twenty years ago which claims to find all sorts of information about Twentieth Century events and the end of the world in the bible by stringing together letters from a sequence. The book is stupid, and its author, Michael Drosnin, actually believes the code was put there by space aliens. He also claimed the world was going to end in 2006; but here we are.
No, when I say that Revelation is in a sort of code language, I mean that it uses symbols to stand in for figures and events from the first century which were too politically dangerous to make explicit. There is a great deal about the anti-Christ and the number “666” and the beast from the sea and so forth which Christians would have been able to understand as speaking about the Roman Empire and its leaders, but which pagan Romans would have just seen as strange fever dream kinda stuff.
Unfortunately, since the Episcopal Church’s adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary, we miss the first five verses of the lesson as we would have hear it previously, presumably because even the architects of this new lectionary thought it too weird to include in the church’s liturgical life, so let me read those verses now:
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 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 with golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints; and they sang a new song, saying, “Worthy art thou to take the scroll and to open its seals, for thou wast slain and by thy blood didst ransom men for God from every tribe and tongue and people and nation, and hast made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on earth.”
So, what on earth is going on here? Let’s take each of the images in turn. First, the four beasts. In the previous chapter, John had described these living creatures in some detail. One was a lion, one an ox, one an eagle, and one a man. Traditionally, these have been seen as symbols of the four Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – and their writers. The problem with this interpretation is that there were not four canonical Gospels when revelation was written. In fact, there was at the time no New Testament Canon – no list of what books were in and out of the bible as we have received it today. I want to suggest, then, that the identification of the creatures and the evangelists is a later interpretation. It is certainly a part of the Church’s Tradition and worthy of consideration and appreciation, but it is not the only valid way of viewing the symbol.
Here is my interpretation of the symbolic nature of the beasts. It is based in biblical scholarship, not just my own opinion, and I find it the most compelling explanation, but it is just one of many interpretations. The lion, I believe, represents political authority. The lion had served as a symbol for the tribe of Judah in the Ancient Near East and was meant to highlight that tribe’s power, as it ruled in Jerusalem. Jesus himself is referred to the “Lion of Judah” in Revelation in relation to his status as King of Kings. We find lions in medieval heraldry for much the same reason. More recently, as some of you may know, the rapper Snoop Dogg changed his name to Snoop Lion upon his conversion to Rastafarianism as a means of identifying himself with Haille Selasie, the Ethiopian king who serves as that religion’s messiah figure and who was called a lion.
The ox, I believe, symbolizes cultural and religious authority. Oxen were important both to agriculture in the Ancient Near East (they plowed the land) and to the cult of the temple (they were sacrificed in religious rites). For the average Israelite, the political power had a great influence on life in the form of law and taxes, and the authority du jour was an occasionally beneficent (as in the case of the Persians) and often malevolent (in the case of the Assyrians, Babylonians, Greeks, and Romans) determinant of wellbeing. The religious power was just as important. They leveled their own taxes, ruled on issues of orthodoxy, and promised either redemption or condemnation based on the quality of sacrifices made at the temple. It’s notable that the chief priest and his advisers were as instrumental as Herod and Pilate in Jesus’ execution.
Then we have the eagle and the man, which I believe to be symbols respectively of human potential and the reality of human frailty. We try and sometimes succeed in accomplishing great things on our own steam. But the greatest of us are eventually brought low, by death if by nothing else.
So we’ve got the two greatest sorts of authority humanity experiences on the macro level (political and religious authority) and the two prevailing aspects of the human experience on the micro level (potential and limitedness).
Then we have twenty-four elders. Again, we are told in the preceding chapter that they are clothed in white (a symbol of purity) and that they are seated on thrones (a symbol of rule). These represent the Church as a whole. All have been made clean in Baptism and all have been made kings and priests, as the apostle tells us. Perhaps there are twenty-four of them as a symbol of the unity of and equality between Jews and Gentiles in the Church. There were twelve tribes of Israel, and the inclusion of non-Israelites doubled the size church (though eventually there were far more Gentiles than Jews in the Church as the Good News spread swiftly throughout the known world).
Finally, we see the Lamb standing as though it had been slain. This is a lot easier to interpret. Revelation is, as I said earlier, never explicit, but this image is hard for a Christian to miss. The lamb is Jesus himself, who was slain but now stands.
And now, at last, we get to the point. The lamb is in the center of the scene and the beasts and the elders bow down and worship, burning incense which is described as being “the prayers of the saints.” The lamb, Christ Jesus, is the only one deemed worthy to open the scroll which holds within it the things to come. Earthly kings cannot do it, nor can some high priest. No human effort can frustrate the course of divine history, neither can human frailty cause the divine plan to fail. Even the Church, that gift from God which is the Body of Christ here on earth cannot determine the course of human history. Only Jesus can, and all any of us can do is acknowledge his supremacy.
This is very good news, indeed! There are scary and disappointing things in the world right now, as there always have been. Violence and poverty and drug abuse and the dissolution of the family and a host of other ills beset us. But in terms of eternity, we can have hope.
Humanity’s inherent goodness and humanity’s inclination toward wickedness have made micro-loans to peasants and poisoned their water sources. We’ve set up charity clinics and we’ve made it even harder for the poorest among us to receive medical care. The human endeavor is a mixed bag of righteous striving and of wickedness. But in terms of eternity, we can have hope.
We cannot use our hope for justice in eternity as an excuse for the evil we do and the evil which is done on our behalf now. But we can give thanks that all the powers of this world have got nothing on Jesus Christ. We can give thanks that while we will be called to account for our actions in this life, the fate of our world is in the hands of the all-merciful. We can give thanks that all things will be subjected to the rule of him who is the first and the last and the living one, who will, on that glorious day, put all things to rights for us and for those whom we have wronged. Thanks be to God who gives us and our neighbors and our enemies and the stranger the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.