Can both Jesus and Caesar be Lord?
Two weeks ago we examined Revelation as a Christian example of a Jewish style of writing called apocalyptic that was written with symbolic and mythical imagery, dividing time between the present evil age and the blessed age to come. And the purpose was in code language to unmask God’s judgement on oppressive political powers.
Last week we saw that some scholars believe that the structure of the book also shows the influence of Greek drama as it is possible to divide the book of Revelation up into Seven Acts each consisting of Seven scenes.
The Seven Lampstands
The Seven Seals
The Seven Trumpets
The Seven Pageants
The Seven Bowls
The Seven Judgements
The Seven Promises.
Today I would like to look at the book from a different perspective, a tale of two Lords and two cities.
As Marcus Borg writes, one of the central conflicts that is played out in the drama of the book is the conflict between two competing Lordships: Christ’s and Caesar’s. The central question that Christians were faced with was: Is Caesar Lord, or is God, made known in Jesus Lord?
John’s answer is clear, Jesus is Lord. And his purpose is to help Christians who are going through a time of great trial and upheaval to remain faithful to the Lordship of Christ. But as Marcus Borg says, before we can fully understand what this means, we must examine the claims that were being made by Caesar, which requires a little bit of history.
After the assassination of Julius Caesar, the Roman Empire went into a period of civil war. This devastating period of war, disruption and division was finally brought to an end by Julius Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian, who took on the title Caesar Augustus. He ushered in what was called the Pax Romana, meaning the Peace of Rome and what the Roman Empire now began to call a “golden age”. To cement this period of peace, Augustus Caesar came up with a plan to secure the commitment and devotion of people around the Empire. He promoted his deceased father Julius Caesar, to the status of a god, which meant that he, Augustus Caesar, became the son of god. And so from that time onwards the Emperors became known as filius deus, son of god, dominus, meaning Lord an even deus, meaning god. In the imperial propaganda that was put out during Augustus Caesar’s reign, Augustus, which means “exalted one” or “venerable one” became was referred to as the saviour who had brought peace on earth.
The following is a Roman inscription from 9 BC (just before Jesus was born) found in Asia Minor. This was the same area in which the seven churches were, to whom John was writing:
“The most divine Caesar… we should consider equal to the Beginning of all things… Whereas the Providence (another name for the mysterious hand of God) which has regulated our whole existence… has brought our life to the climax of perfection in giving us the emperor Augustus… who being sent as a Saviour, has put and end to war… the birthday of the god Augustus has been for the whole world, the beginning of the good news. (And the Greek word that is used for good news is euagellion, which is the same word that can be translated in English as evangelical and also gospel.)
And so, the Roman Imperial propaganda machine, with the Roman Emperor at its head were proclaiming a Gospel of good news about a saviour whose birthday was good news for the whole the world. This saviour was considered to be the equal to the beginning of all things, and by Divine Providence, this saviour, so the imperial propaganda machine said, had brought peace to the earth. (Does this language sound at all familiar to you? It has strong echoes in the opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel, where we are told that during the reign of Caesar Augustus another saviour has been born to a lowly peasant girl, and his coming will bring peace to God’s people on earth… sound familiar?)
In addition, as I have said in passing in previous weeks, throughout the empire, temples were constructed with statues of the Roman Emperor’s where worship was offered to the emperors, normally by burning incense. Such worship did not stop people from following their own religion as well, but this was a way of exalting the status of the Roman Emperor in the minds of the people in order to cement their loyalty and commitment to the Empire.
In contrast to this, John, the author of Revelation proclaims in the book, the exclusive lordship of God and “the Lamb” – in other words, God made known in Jesus. In Chapter 1, John describes Jesus as “the faithful witness, the first born of the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth”. He is also described elsewhere as the Lamb that was slain, in other words, executed by the power of Rome, but vindicated and exalted by God, thus unmasking the Roman Emperor as a false pretender lord.
Marcus Borg writes that throughout the book of Revelation, the honour and praise that was demanded by Caesar is instead offered to God and Jesus instead. This happens numerous times across the pages of Revelation, where angels and people round God’s throne burst into worship.
John’s point throughout the book of Revelation is to emphasize that Jesus is Lord, and that Caesar is not.
In contrast to Caesar who is portrayed as a violent and dangerous beast, Jesus referred to 24 times in Revelation as a Lamb, and the Greek word actually means ‘little lamb’ suggesting qualities of a harmless, innocent, soft and gentle creature. The Lamb also emphasizes the sense of Jesus life being a sacrificial offering. The life of Jesus sacrificed, like the lambs that were sacrificed in the exodus story on the night before the Israelites were liberated from Pharaoh, another exploitative and domineering ruler, just like Caesar.
The contrast between the Lamb and the Beast is an important one, because it is meant to emphasize the difference between the way of Jesus and the way of Caesar. The way of Caesar was the way of achieving peace through the sword, through domination, and violence. It is still the way that most countries try to bring peace in the world. Peace through military might and domination. But unfortunately it tends to bring only more division, hatred and retribution.
But the peace that Jesus brings by contrast, is a peace brought about by gentleness, by innocence, humility and by sacrificial love. This is way of Jesus that we find expressed in the Gospels.
When Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem where he knows he is going to die, his disciples are squabbling behind him about who is the greatest among them. Jesus’s answer is very illuminating, when read in the light of of the book of Revelation:
Jesus says, “Don’t you know that the Rulers of the Nations lord it over them and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be the slave of all, for the son of man came not to be served but to serve.” Mark 10:42ff.
When Jesus is referring to the Rulers of the nations and their officials, who is he referring to? Quite clearly, he is referring to Caesar who was the ruler of the then known world and his officials scattered throughout the empire, doing his bidding. The way of Jesus is different from the way of Caesar. The Kingdom way of Jesus is different from the Imperial Way of Rome, and in fact all the Empires that have ever ruled the world that have done so with the power of the sword and the threat of violence.
Are we going to be part of the domination system of the Beast, who keeps peace through violence, or are we going to be part of the servant way of the Lamb, who rules by servant-hood and in the language of Rev 4:10 gets us to cast down our crowns before the throne of God. Casting down our crowns is another way of inviting us into the way of humility. We are not to be in this for our own power and glory. That is the way of Caesar.
Apart from the contrast between the Lordship of Christ and the Lordship of Caesar, Revelation is also a tale of two cities: the City of Rome described as a Prostitute Seated on the back of a beast and given the name Babylon the Great, and on the other hand, the City of God, the New Jerusalem, that in dream-like imagery descends out of heaven dressed like a bride.
The City of Rome is described with pretentious luxury at the end of Chapter 17 as dressed in Purple and Scarlet, and glittering with gold, precious stones and pearls. In chapter 18:3 we read that the Kings of the earth have committed adultery with her. In other words, they have made political pacts and agreements with her. In the same verse we read that the merchants of the earth have grown rich from her excessive luxuries. In chapter 18:11, it goes on to describe Rome as a great centre of trade in gold, silver and precious stones, fine linen, ivory, costly wood, bronze iron and marble as well as of spices, wine and olive oil, cattle sheep, horses and carriages, and also finally in verse 13, trade in human beings sold as slaves. In other words, the wealth of the Empire is built on exploitation and slavery. It is not only a system of political and military domination, it is also a system built on economic exploitation, a city built on the backs of human slavery and human suffering.
By contrast, the New Jerusalem is a place of no more tears, death or pain. In other words, it is not built on the pain and suffering of others. In the City of Rome, the elite benefit from the wealth and luxury of the Empire, others are exploited and do not share in the wealth. In the Roman Empire, as is the case in our world today, it was built on an economic system in which the rich grew richer and the poor grew poorer. But in the New Jerusalem the thirsty are given water without cost. Everyone has free access to the gifts of the city.
And so the book of Revelation was written to a people who were being encouraged to make a choice: Choose this day who you will serve… and we read in the book of Joshua. And as Jesus says, You cannot serve two masters. Would they give in and bend the knee to Caesar and simply go along with the ways of the Empire, or would they choose to serve under the Lordship of Christ, the Lordship of the Lamb?
And the question remains for us today, Will we give in and simply become part of the exploitative economics of the world that is built often on new and creative forms of modern slavery, or will be seek to be citizens of of the Kingdom and the City of God?
But unfortunately, one of the great dangers of the book of Revelation is that the author himself has not fully integrated these truths and insights in his own psyche. While in key places in the book, he portrays Jesus as a gentle innocent sacrificial lamb, in chapter 19, his portrayal of Jesus changes to that of a warrior on a white horse who leads the armies of heaven into battle ready to strike down the nations. At this point in the book, it is as though John the writer has begun to mix his metaphors. While the warrior is described as “just and true”, the image of Jesus as a warrior King in chapter 19 stands in stark contrast with the image portrayed in the Gospels of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey. In addition, as Marcus Borg writes, John’s portrait of God as sending massive destruction on the inhabitants of the earth is extreme. In one scene, blood flows as high as a horses bridal for a distance of about two hundred miles (Rev 14:20). This is an image of excessive violence.
While John, the writer of revelation is inviting us to make a choice between serving Jesus as Lord, depicted as a Lamb rather than serving Caesar as Lord, depicted as a Beast, the God of Revelation seems to have more to do with vengeance than love and true justice. The Book of Revelation also unfortunately in many places supports a picture of God as an angry tyrant (not unlike Caesar) who plans to destroy the earth and all of those who fail to bow down before the Lamb.
And so while John’s intended aim seems to have been to contrast Jesus with Caesar, in the end he has also undermined some of his own agenda and purpose in the process. The violence in his own psyche, that has not yet been fully healed, he projects onto God in the form of an angry and dangerous tyrant, and onto Jesus as the Warrior King riding on a white horse who is ready to rule the kings of the earth with an iron sceptre and tread the wine press of the fury of God’s wrath upon them. This description of Jesus is, it seems, almost incompatible or incongruous with the Jesus of the Gospels who tells us that if we wish to enter the Kingdom of God, we need to become like little children.
In closing, these things don’t only happen at a macro political level, they also play themselves out at a personal level. The way of Caesar is the way of domination and coercion by force. The way of Jesus is the power of love and kindness. These two ways play themselves out in even the most ordinary of relationships and interactions. They happen in homes and family relationships. They happen at work. Do we follow the way of Caesar, getting our way by force, domination, coercion or manipulation? Or do we conduct our interactions with others in the way of gentleness, love, kindness and humility.