In the fourth chapter of Revelation John begins in earnest to describe his strange and unsettling vision. Traveling in the spirit, at the command of the voice to “come up here,” John passes through an open door and ascends into heaven itself. The things that John sees there are meant to encourage, strengthen, and embolden Christians who remain on the earth. The purpose of the writing is to instill courage in human beings who are about to be tormented, persecuted, and martyred by a political regime run amok.

                The temptation for modern readers, when first confronted with the images of Revelation chapters 4 & 5, is to immediately bog down in the details of this extraordinary presentation of God’s heavenly court. The most obvious background for the imagery of these two chapters is the prophecy of Ezekiel and the vision of Daniel. In fact, these two chapters repeat fourteen elements from the vision of Daniel 7 and repeat them in the same basic order. One could spend an enormous amount of energy chasing down these details. Indeed, a recently-produced, multi-volume commentary on Revelation does just that.

                In my teaching of Revelation, however, I try to avoid the temptation to bog down in the details. Instead, I try to focus on the larger perspective—how did these images function in and for the church of the first century? What was it about these images that encouraged the early Christians to remain strong even in the face of an immediate and often gruesome death? What inspiring power did the readers of Revelation receive from John’s strange visions?

                At the time of John’s vision the Roman Empire was, without doubt, the greatest power on earth. There was no political regime capable of resisting it. The mightiest rulers folded under its military force; the most deeply-entrenched social customs dissolved under its irresistible influence; the most tenacious religious beliefs gave way to its overpowering pressure. The Empire was the center of the universe; the Emperor was a god-or so it seemed.

                Who was this Jesus to defy the Roman Empire? Who were these Christians to stand up to the greatest power in the world? The Lamb of God, that’s who. Citizens of the Kingdom of the True and Living God, that’s who. And the Roman Empire looks ridiculous in the light of the greatness of God.

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