If you missed the last two days’ posts, make sure you’ve read Revelation chapter 4. Because we’re looking at this vision of God on his throne in the heavens. Yesterday, we saw the Jewish background to this vision – how it’s described using the words and images of many of the Old Testament appearances of God. It was designed to impress upon John’s hearers that his vision stands in continuity with Israel’s God, who reveals himself through human prophets, and who’s still very much in control of his world, judging evil and protecting his people.
Today, we look at this chapter from a different angle, where we see that some of the language and imagery John uses is drawn from the Roman imperial court.
Firstly, we see God’s throne surrounded by 24 elders.Rev 4:4 Surrounding the throne were twenty-four other thrones, andseated on them were twenty-four elders. They were dressed in white andhad crowns of gold on their heads.
Now there are at least twenty four different theories as to who the elders are: firstly, there’s debate as to whether they’re angels or humans. It could well be both, given the way apocalyptic literature depicts spiritual realities that lie behind or represent the material world. But what’s with the number twenty for? Some of the options are:
- the 12 tribes of Israel + the 12 apostles
- the 24 courses of priests in Israel
- the 24 stars in astrology which were known by the Babylonians as ‘the judges of all’
- 24 hours in the day, symbolising round-the-clock praise (this one’s a bit of an anachronism)
Maybe John has all these in mind. Yet I think the most likely is that these twenty four elders are a sort of combined parody of all those who assemble around the throne of the Roman Emperor.
The majority view is that Revelation was written during the reign of Emperor Domitian, in the 80s and 90s AD. And Domitian was the first emperor to increase the number of his bodyguards from twelve to twenty four. As well as bodyguards, Domitian also surrounded himself with priests – dressed in white, with golden crowns – whenever he presided at sporting events in the Coliseum.
And look what they do with their crowns:Rev 4:10 the twenty-four elders fall down before him who sits on the throne and worship him who lives for ever and ever. They lay their crowns before the throne and say…
This is exactly the behaviour expected of kings and rulers who had been conquered by Rome. They would ceremonially cast theircrowns before him. And they would not pick them up again untilthe emperor gave them permission. They were symbolically submitting their own rule to that of the Roman emperor.
And look at what they say:Rev 4:10-11 They lay their crowns before the throne and say: 11″You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honour and power, for you created all things, and by your will they were created and have their being.”
‘Our Lord and God’ – in Latin, Dominus et Deus Noster – is a title that Domitian was particularly fond of. He was one of the few emperors who actually thought of himself as divine, and expected people to treat him accordingly.
So you see here how John depicts God on his throne using not only OT visions (see yesterday), but the language and images of the Roman imperial court. Why does he do this?
It’s a form of satire. It’s sends the message that these jumped-up pretenders in togas wearing dead leaves on their heads are kidding themselves if they think they are gods; if they think they have any power other than that which God allows them to have. God is the true emperor; they can only take up their crown and rule if and when God allows them to.
And it sends a message to Christians, too. God is in control; not the Roman empire or its emperor. It may look big and imposing from you rperspective; but from God’s perspective – he’s the one who holds the real power. He’s the one who’s in control. He’s the one who sits not on an earthly throne, but a heavenly one. And as we’ll see later in chapter six, he’s ultimately the one behind the great events of human history. That’s the whole point of the throne scene: to depict power and &control from God’s viewpoint, not our own. And that’s as true today as it was in the first century Roman world. God is in control; not whoever claims to have power in our own world.
So what would a 21st century throne-scene look like? Maybe one version would go like this:After this I looked, and there before me was the Ancient of Days seated on a leather chair behind a mahogany desk. The office was shaped like an oval, and behind him were fifty stars all bowing down before him, with seven stripes which are the seven spirits of God. On the floor before himwas the picture of an eagle. The eagle was covered in eyes which were continuous live feeds from all the satellites of the earth.Surrounding the desk were twenty-four sons of men. They were dressed in black suits and had discreet earpieces in their ears; day & night they never stopped whispering into their lapels.From the desk came flashes of lightning, rumblings, and a shock and awe campaign the likes of which the world has never seen. And I looked and I saw at his right hand a marine carrying a briefcase; in it were the launch codes for the seven judgements upon the earth.
OK, there’s a surprisingly fine line between apocalyptic and comedy, which I crossed a while back, but you get the idea. Even the head of the most powerful nation on earth: even his power is a pale imitation of the one true God. He only rulesbecause God has allowed him to. The fate of the world is in God’s hands, not in the might of the American military. Which should be a great source of comfort to us all.
But of course it’s not just world powers that God controls. It’s any source of power; any institution; any human authority. Anything that might to us look big and impressive and sometimes op-pressive. God is bigger than that. And John invites us, I think,to imagine for ourselves a throne-scene that portrays that fact.
Maybe you have a boss that gives you a hard time – either for your faith, or just because they enjoy having power over you. Re-imagine God in his heaven on a throne that contains elements of your boss’s office; maybe imagine the world as one of God’s desk-toys. Remind yourself that your boss’s power is but a shadow God’s power; that any authority your boss has is only because God has allowed it; and that God will one day demand an account for how they have used it. Gain God’s perspective on your boss.
Maybe your family makes life difficult for you because you’re a follower of Jesus. Re-imagine a throne-scene that somehow depicts God’s authority over your parents.
Or maybe it’s the godlessness of our society that makes you angry. Like first century Christians, you see those worshipping the idols of our age, and they seem to be getting away with it. By their lifestyles they spurn the one true God, yet they seem to prosper. Life seems easier for them, because they go along with the rest of the Empire rather than fighting against the current like we do. Again, John encourages us to imagine a throne-scene that depicts God’s authority over all these false gods.
This is something I get my students to do when we study Revelation. If you’re feeling creative, write a throne room scene that describes God by appropriating the imagery of an earthly authority or idol. Takethe idol’s own rhetoric and throw it back in its face, so to speak. (Popular targets have been the gods of the shopping mall, and of Wall Street.)
Put yours in the comments section for others to read, if you’re game.