Game of Thrones (But It's No Game)
Updated: Apr 1
I am always amazed at the similarities of life in the first century and the twenty first century. The Book of Revelation is a letter written by John to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia during the first century. Rome was the dominant reality of life lived within the empire.
Rome boasted extraordinary military strength that controlled the Mediterranean world. Roman military strength had brought a certain peace to that world. Roads were built to move armies and to ensure free flowing commerce. Trade developed from England in the west to India and China in the east, from the Black Sea in the north to Africa in the south. While there were exchanges between merchants, the roads also allowed tax revenue and loot collected from conquest to flow to Rome. Peace was purchased at the price of oppression and prosperity was bought with exploitation.
The emperor claimed credit for the peace, prosperity, and luxury of the empire. Roman elites and local elites within the conquered territories were only too happy to agree. A little worship of the emperor as divine resulted in government subsidies and money for building projects. These favors increased trade and local wealth. If any defense and peace keeping was needed, the legions were close by. It was clear that all power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise flowed from Rome.
The places and nations have changed but the reality still exists today. Nation states survive and prosper on the back of military power and economic activity. Oppression and exploitation still exist. In the 21st century a variety of nation states vie for supremacy playing a high stakes game of nuclear threat and counter threat. It is clear that all power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise flow from the nation that can sustain technological, military, and economic hegemony.
All this posed a problem for the followers of Christ in the seven churches in the Roman province of Asia. These people had been introduced to another kingdom. The Kingdom, not of Caesar, but of God was announced in the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth. Though born in an obscure corner of the Roman world and put to death in a very Roman way- crucified, they understood that Jesus did not stay dead but defeated death in resurrection. They understood that his death was an atoning death, meaning that past sin was covered and forgiven. The pagan religion had been a dead end of regret; a new beginning was good news. They had discovered this message also had spiritual power to change women and men as they moved into God’s new future. They accepted Jesus as their Savior and Lord.
That was the problem. In certain places the Roman authorities demanded that Christians conform to the culture and give Caesar his due. The Christians refused. At times displeasure was expressed in ostracism from social and economic activity. At other times displeasure was expressed more directly- conform or die. It seemed all the power lay in the hands of Rome. All power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise flowed from this world. There are times today when I am tempted to believe this as I listen to news from our culture.
That’s why John’s visions of heaven became so important for the first century Christians. Twenty first century Christians need them too. John is taken to heaven and stands before the throne of the Lord God Almighty and at the center of the throne he sees the Lamb. The scene is clearly transcendent, clearly outside of our earthly experience and universal in scope. John sees eternal non-human beings; the four living creatures and angels numbering thousands upon thousands. He sees twenty-four elders and armies of faithful men and women who have died for their faith. The great gathering of creatures and creation express praise. “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (Revelation 5:12) Resources do not only flow horizontally from Rome and other earth bound places. Resources also flow on a vertical plane from heaven to earth. These are superior resources!
We sometimes glibly remark that heaven is “a place that people go to when they die.” While that is true, I’m not sure we know what we are saying. We seem to push heaven far away, to a distant future, with little feeling of anything real at all. John’s vision of heaven has weight. The vision of the throne and the glory around the throne help me understand heaven is close, so close that by the end of Revelation heaven and earth are finally united. Revelation’s vision helps me understand that heaven is both future and present and that all the resources we need to live in this world flow from the throne.
This has always been the church’s strength. Fifty years or so before John’s Revelation Paul wrote to the Ephesian Christians that “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:6) Paul celebrated the resurrection power that flows to followers of Christ from the throne “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age, but in the age to come.” (Ephesians 1:21) Part of the “rule and authority” Paul had in mind was same Roman power and the dark spiritual forces at work through that power that threatened the seven churches in the Roman province of Asia.
Most American Christians don’t face any real threat from persecution. But we do face temptation. On a daily basis I have to choose. Where will I turn to get power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise? The dark forces that vie for the loyalty of the human heart would like for me to look on the horizontal plane. It is so easy to look around and to “walk by sight.” John’s revelation stands as a call to “walk by faith.” When I do I find all I need to engage this culture of exploitation and oppression flowing from a not yet visible throne in heaven.
The resources of earth, the walk of sight, seems so real but it isn’t. Could mighty Rome ever end? Yes, Roman power did end. Three centuries later the Roman world in the west collapsed, exhausted. The Kingdom of God, as the praise of Revelation suggests, is “for ever and ever!” (Revelation 513)
There are some in the church today that bemoan the loss of authority and power of the Christian church in our culture. Some seem to believe that we need better strategies. No doubt we do. The greatest need is for those strategies to look for power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise, not from this world, but from the throne in heaven. (Hebrews 4:16)