We will continue to use the same hermeneutic of culture and Text as we study Revelation. Before we read Revelation 4, it would be helpful to note the context surrounding the Roman priests who worked for/with the emperor.
Rome had twenty-four legal and official religions. Each of these religions had a head priest who served as their imperial representative — like an ambassador — for Caesar. These priests served in a very public and political office, often making their appearances at public proclamations, coronations, parousias, olympic games, and other imperial events. As history describes them, they were always seen wearing white robes and golden crowns. At times, they are described as having golden sashes around their waist or chest, and they would often lead the people in great song.
I’ve mentioned before my belief that Revelation was written during (or at least in reference to) the reign of Domitian. You may also recall the discussion about the largest gymnasium in the world under construction in Ephesus. If you go to those ruins today, you will find dominant images around the structure (as well as other cities in biblical Asia). Just outside the gymnasium sits a gate with ornate decorations of an ox head every ten feet or so. Each emperor had a different animal they chose to represent themselves, whether it was the strength of an ox or the veracity of a lion. Common images for Domitian were the ox and the lion. He also erected numerous images of himself, as well as the great Roman symbol of the eagle.
|A statue (located at Pergamum) of a Roman emperor; note the images of |
animals around the bottom of the torso (eagles, lions, rams, etc.)
There is record of the rise of Domitian as emperor, and his selection of Ephesus as his neochorus. He planned his great arrival in Ephesus to coincide with the grand opening of his newly constructed gymnasium. It would have been a much anticipated arrival, and the energy in Ephesus at the time would have been electric. Many historians have painted pictures of what the scene could have looked like.
One could imagine the boats arriving in the harbor and the soldiers disembarking, dressed in their shining armor with brand new medallions that read, “Emperor Domitian Flavius, Lord and God.” They may have even brought off the ships brand new statues and other decorative emblems to install all over Ephesus. Eventually, the high priests would assemble, a courier might read the pronouncement and introduction of Emperor Domitian, and then the twenty-four priests of the twenty-four legal Roman religions would begin to lead the people in song. Dressed in white robes and wearing golden crowns, one of the most common songs of the Emperor (think of “Hail to the Chief”) was one that sounded like it came straight out of Isaiah (which raises all kinds of other questions, but some other time).
“Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty! Who was, and who is, and who is to come!”
We’ve found that record in a couple different places referencing the songs of the olympic games and the arrival of the Roman emperor. But alas, we should read Revelation 4:
After this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne. And he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald. Around the throne were twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones were twenty-four elders, clothed in white garments, with golden crowns on their heads.
From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and before the throne were burning seven torches of fire, which are the seven spirits of God, and before the throne there was as it were a sea of glass, like crystal.
And around the throne, on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with the face of a man, and the fourth living creature like an eagle in flight. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and within, and day and night they never cease to say,
“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!”
And whenever the living creatures give glory and honor and thanks to him who is seated on the throne, who lives forever and ever, the twenty-four elders fall down before him who is seated on the throne and worship him who lives forever and ever. They cast their crowns before the throne, saying,
“Worthy are you, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power,
for you created all things,
and by your will they existed and were created.”
In view of the cultural context, this entire fourth chapter is a brilliant subversion of the arrival of Caesar. There are twenty-four priests and pronouncements of glory, incredible songs, and worship of a king. In the words of my good friend Aaron Couch, it’s as if John is writing this letter of apocalyptic encouragement and saying, “I’ve been to the throne room of God — and Domitian isn’t on it.”
In a world that was overrun with the pronouncement and pomp of a powerful ruler, John reminds his readers who the real king is. There is a more true king than the one who claims to wield the throne with power and fear. May this same reminder remain true to us in a world that claims so many things to have power and sway over our present and our future. While it's tempting to wrap up with eloquent resolutions to our conversations, this is actually what the book of Revelation is about. And so we move on into the next chapter, having just been witnesses to the great heavenly pronouncement of who is truly in charge.