The book of Revelation and the passing of political powers


One of the things I do in my time off is watch American military and political dramas such as JAG, NCIS, The West Wing and Madam Secretary. I very much enjoy these dramas as they are extremely well written and well acted, but what I can't help noticing is that underlying all of them is a very clear political message.

This message is that, in spite of challenges from other powers, the US remains the greatest and most powerful nation on earth, and that all will be well in the world providing that what happens is determined by the actions of the benevolent US government and the honourable and heroic US military.

In this view of things, the Pax Americana, the political and military domination of the world by the US is, to quote Francis Fukuyama, 'the end of history,' the end point of human political development beyond which nothing better can be expected or hoped for.

Of course, in reality, this view of the world is fantasy. The actions of the US government are not always benevolent, the US military is not always honourable or heroic, and the political and military power of the US is on the wane due to the resurgence of China and Russia and internal political and social conflict.

To students of ancient history all this sounds eerily familiar. In the first century of the Christian era the Roman government made claims for the Roman Empire very similar to those currently made for the US. Roman imperial propaganda proclaimed that the goal of history was the Pax Romana brought in by the Emperor Augustus, the peace and prosperity brought to the world by Roman imperial dominance. All would be well in the world, the propaganda suggested, if the nations of the world submitted to Roman rule, obeyed Roman law, paid Roman taxes, and showed their pollical loyalty by participating in the emperor worship of the imperial cult.

In reality, of course, the propaganda obscured the reality. Like the current claims for America, the claims made for the Roman Empire were bogus.

This is one of the two key messages made by the Apostle John in the Book of Revelation. What John tells his readers is, first of all, that the claims made for the benefits of the Pax Romana by the imperial authorities are simply untrue.

We can see this, for example in Revelation 6:1-11. In these verses John describes four horsemen who are given power 'to kill with sword and with famine and with pestilence and by wild beasts of the earth' and the deaths of the Christian martyrs who are slain 'for the word of God and the witness they had borne.'

The point John is making is that the world is not (as imperial propaganda proclaimed) a place of peace and prosperity. It is a place of war, famine, disease and death, and it is a place where those who challenge the existing order of things get executed.

We can also see it in John's account in Revelation 12:1-17 of a woman and her child threatened by a dragon. In Greek mythology the god Apollo was threatened prior to his birth by the dragon Python and was saved when his mother Leto escaped to the island of Delos and was subsequently protected by Poseidon. At four days old the infant Apollo then killed Python.

This story was well known in the Greco-Roman world of the first century and it was used by imperial propaganda, particularly in the time of the Emperor Domitian, to give legitimacy to the Roman imperial system, with the emperor portrayed as Apollo, the son of the gods and defeater of the chaos monster. Who can protect the Empire from the forces of chaos? The emperor can.

John, however, subverts this propaganda by telling us that the mother is not Leto but Israel, that the divine Son is not Apollo (or the emperor) but Jesus Christ, that the dragon is not Python but Satan, that Jesus has defeated Satan on the cross, and therefore it is Jesus (and not the emperor) who protects the world from the forces of chaos.

In Revelation 13 John then challenges imperial propaganda further with his account of the two beasts who utter blasphemies against God and make war on the saints. These two beasts represent the Roman Empire as a whole and its local manifestation, the Council of Asia through which the Romans governed Asia Minor.

What John declares is that whatever they think about themselves, in reality the beasts are not in charge of what is going on. They are only the puppets of the dragon and will share in his ultimate defeat by Christ. Furthermore, John declares in 13:18 that the number of the beast from the land is in the end a human number (i.e. the imperial authorities have only human rather than divine authority) and its activity is only ever a grotesque parody of the true authority exercised by Christ and his Church (hence its number is 666 rather than the perfect number 777).

It would be a mistake, however, to think that all John does in Revelation is deconstruct imperial propaganda. What he also does is offer a second key message.

This second key message is that it is Jesus Christ who is 'King of kings and Lord of lords' (Revelation 19:16). It is Jesus who rules over all things (the Roman Empire included), achieving God's purposes in history by enacting judgement on the ungodly and protecting God's faithful people (even when they die for their faith).

Furthermore, it is Jesus Christ who brings in the only political regime that will last for ever. Rome, says John, will fall ('fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!' - Revelation 18:2) as will all earthly political systems, but Jesus brings in the political system that will endure for ever, the New Jerusalem in the new creation where 'death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore' (Revelation 21:4), and the saints from all nations will dwell joyfully in the presence of God for evermore.

What all this means for us is that as we read the news, we should not fear the changes in the world order that are currently taking place. Like the dominance of Rome, American dominance will pass away, as all sinful human political systems must, and so, eventually, will whatever sinful systems replace it.

Christians should not let this worry them unduly. Whatever happens, Jesus Christ is Lord. He has defeated Satan, he rules the world, and he will bring in God's eternal kingdom. Our calling, like the Apostle John's, is to declare this truth to others, and to live patiently and faithfully in the light of it ourselves.

Martin Davie is a lay Anglican theologian and Associate Tutor in Doctrine at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford.