+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The book of Revelation has, since before the establishment of the New Testament Canon been among the most controversial inclusions in the bible, largely I think because it is so obscure, its imagery so prone to misinterpretation, that there is always a danger that wild theories might pop up from those not especially careful about poring through the treasure-house of historic interpretations by the great theologians of the church. Thus, even Cranmer, who crafted our first prayerbook in the mid-16th Century, in his lectionary for daily bible readings included everything (even the more dull genealogies and regulations in the Old Testament) with the exception of large passages from this book. Indeed, from medieval apocalyptic cults to the nineteenth century dispensationalism of John Nelson Darby still popular among fundamebntalist protestants (which I’ve mentioned from this pulpit before) to wildly irresponsible popular literature like The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series of novels, there has been no shortage of “bad takes” on what this book means.
I think this is because Revelation is in a sort of code language; 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 first-century Christians would have been able to understand as speaking about the Roman Empire and its leaders, particularly the Emperor Nero who was violently persecuting them, but which to pagan Romans would have just seemed like strange fever dream kinda stuff. So, that said, let’s look at the eery symbols in this morning’s reading. What might they stand for in John’s peculiar symbolic language?
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 of later origin. 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 on centuries worth 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 represents political authority. The lion had served as a symbol for the tribe of Judah throughout 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.
The ox 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 levied 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, rarely 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 change the course of things, 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. Who knows what on earth Russia’s endgame is? The experience of pandemic has laid bare some of the pernicious problems we have in this country, both culturally and institutionally. We’re ever on the precipice of climate catastrophe. Things seem awfully bleak. 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. Humanity has educated girls in Afghanistan and now permitted their progress to be rolled back. We’ve set up charity clinics and we’ve made it even harder for the poorest among us to receive medical care. 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.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.