Instead of going through Revelation 8 and 9 like a broken record, it might be the perfect time to break up the monotony and point out other very important cultural parallels John is employing. These parallels revolve around the Olympic games.
Started by the ancient Greeks, Olympic Games were a celebration of the Greek Olympiad (mythology of gods) and the power of the Greek empire. Even as the world was Romanized, these tenets carried through, although they became much more imperially minded. One of the things the games celebrated was the place of the gods. As you ran in the games, you were running to extol the glory of whatever god was being represented. Later, in the Roman world, this was applied to your city and country; you ran to prove to the world the greatness of the god of your city. It cannot be overstated that your performance was tied to the god you represented — not your individual talent, as we are used to today.
From what evidence we have about the games, we can piece together a pretty good picture of how things went down. Though it’s certainly been done with some liberty to make the most sense of history (it’s not like we found an ancient program hiding under the bleachers), the picture with its many parts is all there. I originally heard this lesson from my teacher, Ray Vander Laan, and many of those pieces can be found in the works mentioned at the beginning of our Revelation series (authors like Stauffer, Worth, and others).
What follows is a general outline of how they would open the Olympic Games:
1) Presentation of the Emperor — Caesar enters to the acclaim of all those who are gathered in the stands.
2) Herald’s Announcements — The emperor was almost always introduced by the recitation of his mighty deeds and accomplishments.
3) Caesar’s Pronouncements — Caesar would take the opportunity to speak to the cities and regions that were represented. The pronouncements often followed a typical outline: “I’ve heard of your [positive traits], … but I have this against you [negative traits and warnings].”
4) Chorus Sings Imperial Praise — The crowd, dressed in white robes (the accepted attire to attend the games), would sing, led by the 24 priests of the 24 legal Roman religions we’ve discussed before.
5) Games Opened — Another herald would read a scroll, again extolling the greatness of the gods and Caesar, king of kings and god most high; this ushered in the beginning of the competition.
6) Chariot Races — As far as we can tell, the first event was always the same and served as more of a ritual or ceremonial event to kick off the games — the chariot races. The colors of the horses appear to be consistent for each event: black, white, red, and spotted/pale.
7) Trumpets — Trumpets sound and the opening ceremonies are complete.
Let the games begin!
For our astute readers, you have probably already noticed that the opening nine chapters of Revelation are laid out by John exactly like the opening to the Olympic Games. Follow me back through the steps:
1) Presentation of the Emperor — (Revelation 1a) God is presented as the Alpha and Omega, the Almighty.
2) Herald’s Announcements — (Revelation 1b) John hears a voice telling him to write down what he sees: the greatness of God.
3) Caesar’s Pronouncements — (Revelation 2-3) The seven letters to the seven churches, following the “I’ve heard about your [positive traits], … but I have this against you” format.
4) Chorus Sings Imperial Praise — (Revelation 4 & 7) The crowd in Revelation, dressed in white robes, sings, led by the 24 elders.
5) Games Opened — (Revelation 5) The slain lamb is found worthy to open the scroll with seven seals, a scroll with writing on both sides.
6) Chariot Races — (Revelation 6) The horses and chariots appear, with all the colors to match.
7) Trumpets — Trumpets sound and the games begin.
What does all of this mean? It means John is writing his apocalyptic vision against the backdrop of the Olympic Games. In a very real sense, the reader who sees this would understand what John is saying: “We find ourselves in a great olympic competition! Who is going to win?” Throughout his writing, it seems the enemy (Rome, Babylon, the beast, the dragon, etc.) has the upper hand. The book does not dance around the very real persecution and apparent defeat that the original readers are struggling through.
But just as my teacher told me, I think John is saying something more.
He’s saying the way we conduct ourselves in the world is how we tell the world what our God is like. If the games were an opportunity to put your god on display, then the struggle we endure is our opportunity to do the same. The way we persevere, and the way we overcome — the way we run — is what will tell the world who our God is. May we be reminded of the words we studied back in Hebrews:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.