The Fourth Sunday of Easter
After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”
Today we continue an Easter Season sermon series called “Good News for Hard Times,” based on the lectionary readings from the Book of Revelation. And although I am familiar with some of the more popular interpretations of that book (like The Late Great Planet Earth, by Hal Lindsay, or the Left Behind series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins) I probably need to tell you that everything I know about Revelation I learned from an actual New Testament scholar named James L. Blevins, who loved this book and devoted his life to it. Dr. Blevins was one of my professors at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. I took New Testament Survey, Part II, with him, and also a graduate-level seminar on Revelation where we translated the entire book from Greek into English. He wasn’t the most exciting teacher I ever had, but he did what he could.
In that New Testament survey course he once walked into class wearing a long, striped robe with a sash tied around his waist and the worst fake beard you have ever seen. It looked as if he had glued cotton balls onto his face with rubber cement. But when the room got quiet he said, “I am the Apostle Paul.” And then he told us his story. I had a hard time accepting him as Paul, in the beginning. He didn’t look like Paul. He didn’t sound like Paul. But as he told his story I was drawn in, especially when he told us about his dramatic conversion experience on the road to Damascus. After that I learned that Dr. Blevins often performed dramatic monologues. It was one of the ways he tried to keep his students interested. Yes, the costumes looked like something from the youth Christmas pageant but I may have learned more from those monologues than from anything else Dr. Blevins tried to teach us.
Near the end of that New Testament survey course he came into the classroom dressed as John, the author of Revelation (I mean, that’s what he told us; you couldn’t tell from the costumes; they all looked exactly the same). But when he began to tell his story I leaned in close, because most of what I knew about the Book of Revelation at that time I had learned from those popular interpretations like The Late Great Planet Earth. But Dr. Blevins told a different story. He didn’t talk about the coming persecution of Christians; he talked about the persecution of Christians near the end of the First Century, AD, under the Roman Emperor, Domitian, who thought of himself as divine and forced his citizens to say “Caesar is Lord!” But, as Dr. Blevins emphasized, no real Christian would ever do that. When they were baptized they would say, “Jesus is Lord!” They would do it as an act of defiance, to show Caesar who was boss. But they suffered for their convictions. They were put in jail, they were put to death, they were boiled in oil. John himself was exiled to the island of Patmos where he was forced to quarry rock in the hot sunshine.
Still in costume Dr. Blevins said, “In the cool of the evening we prisoners would be led up the hillside and locked in a cave. Many evenings I stood at the entrance to the cave, looking out at the blue Aegean Sea, as still as a sea of glass. One evening as I stood looking out of the mouth of the cave, I heard a voice behind me saying, ‘John, John, write down the things that I will reveal to you.’ Over a period of nine months I received these revelations and wrote them in a scroll to be sent to the persecuted Christians in Asia Minor.
“Because I was in a Roman prison I could not openly speak of Christ, so the Spirit led me to write the revelation of Jesus Christ in the apocalyptic codes of the Jewish people, developed centuries earlier [and used in other secret writings, like the Book of Daniel]. The first word in my book is the word apokalypsis, which means ‘to uncover’ or ‘reveal.’ It was a clue to my readers that this book was going to be written in secret code.”[i]
So, what is the secret code of the Book of Revelation? Wouldn’t you like to know? Well, Dr. Blevins shared it with us. He typed it up and handed it out in class. I’m going to attach it to the manuscript of this sermon and in a day or so you should be able to find it on our website by clicking the button that says “Church Anytime.” No extra charge for that. But for today’s purposes it might be enough to say that it is an elaborate code involving numbers, colors, and animals.
Let me give you a few examples:
In the first chapter of Revelation John has a vision of “one like the Son of Man.” Christians would have heard that title before in the Book of Daniel, where it says, “I saw one like a Son of Man coming with the clouds of heaven,” but in their own time they would have recognized it immediately as a reference to Jesus. Still, this Jesus was not like any you have ever seen on the wall of a Sunday school classroom. His hair was as white as wool, his eyes were like flames of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze. It can be rather disturbing unless you know the code.
Dr. Blevins explained it like this: “In chapter 1 of my book I describe the Son of Man in color codes. I was in prison for preaching Christ, I could not openly speak about him, so I set forth a living sermon in colors. The Son of Man is described with bronze feet, depicting strength, white robes of conquering, white hair of purity, a gold band around his chest, representing his worth or value, a sharp, two-edged sword coming from his mouth, representing truth. All the Christians hearing this passage read aloud would have known immediately the one of whom I was speaking.”[ii]
But Christians would have also known who John was speaking about when he talked about “The Beast.” In the Book of Daniel four great beasts rise up out of the sea, each one representing a different historical empire.[iii] In the Book of Revelation a beast rises up out of the sea representing the Roman Empire, and particularly Caesar Domitian. Dr. Blevins, speaking as John, explained it like this. “[In apocalyptic literature], monster beasts represent monstrous persons or forces. They are constructed from bits and parts of wild animals to represent extremely evil persons. The Beast from the Sea in my book is a symbol for Caesar Domitian or political power. It is comprised of the three symbols of the major world powers in my day: bear’s feet for Medea, leopard’s spots for Persia, and a lion’s head for Rome. There was no animal mean enough to represent Caesar, who had put so many Christians to death.”[iv]
You may have also heard about “the mark of the Beast,” and his number, 666. Again Dr. Blevins explained that “Seven is the divine number. In many apocalyptic works the code number for God is 777. Many Jews added up the number of their name according to the Hebrew alphabet and this would be their code number in days of persecution. The number six stands for imperfection or extreme evil. In Revelation, 666 is the code number for Caesar Domitian, who was persecuting Christians and putting them to death.”[v] Those citizens of his empire who would not pledge their allegiance to Caesar, that is, those who would not take “the mark of the Beast,” were in danger of losing not only their livelihood but also their lives.
And, finally, Jesus himself is pictured as an animal: a lamb with seven horns (representing divine power) and seven eyes (representing divine seeing). That may seem disturbing to you, even more disturbing than the image of Jesus as the Son of Man with eyes like flames of fire and feet like burnished bronze. But speaking as John Dr. Blevins explained: “Because I was in prison I could not openly speak of Christ, so I used this coded animal to symbolize my Lord.”[vi] This lamb that had been slaughtered, and yet somehow still stood before the throne of God, receiving all the accolades of heaven. Again, any Christian in the Empire would have known exactly who John was talking about.
There is more to say about these codes and the way John used them to communicate with Christians going through hard times, but for now that may be enough, and I want to stop with the symbol of the lamb for a reason. This is not only Mother’s Day, it is also Good Shepherd Sunday, and we were called to worship with a recitation of the 23rd Psalm, the one that begins, “the Lord is my shepherd.” As I said in the children’s sermon, David wrote that psalm about God, his shepherd, but in today’s Gospel lesson from John 10 Jesus talks about himself as the Good Shepherd. He says, “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand” (I hope those of you who are going through hard times can hear and appreciate those words). In John 10 Jesus is presented as the Good Shepherd, but in much of the Book of Revelation he is presented as the Lamb that was slaughtered and yet stands. Do you remember from last week’s sermon how everyone in heaven bowed down and worshiped him, singing, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”? It left me wondering, as I thought about this week’s sermon, “How does all this work? How does the Lord who is my shepherd, become Jesus, the Good Shepherd, and finally the Lamb who was slaughtered and yet stands?”
Well, let me explain it to you as I might explain it to a little child, and ask all you professional theologians out there to withhold your judgment, at least for a little while. Let’s begin by imagining that God, the one who is our shepherd, became an earthly shepherd in the person of Jesus. The author of John’s Gospel says as much. He says that the One who was with God and was God in the beginning became flesh and lived among us. Theologians would call that the Doctrine of the Incarnation but for today’s purposes we might simply say that the Divine Shepherd came down from heaven and became human in order to watch over his earthly flock; he became Jesus, the Good Shepherd. But then there’s this other idea: the idea of the Lamb that was slaughtered and yet stands. And you probably don’t even have to know the codes of the Book of Revelation to know that the author is talking about Jesus. But how did that happen? How did the Good Shepherd become the sacrificial lamb?
Some of you know that I have trouble with the concept of Substitutionary Atonement, the idea that God’s righteousness was so offended by our sinfulness that somebody had to pay, and the one who ended up paying for it was Jesus. What I have trouble with is the idea of God, at the full height of his divine wrath, shouting, “Somebody’s got to pay for this!” I don’t picture God that way. I picture God the way many of the biblical writers do, as being “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” I can’t imagine him saying, “Somebody’s got to pay for human sin!” and then pointing at Jesus. But I can imagine Jesus, the Good Shepherd, being willing to do whatever it took to protect and preserve his flock. And if someone came to him and said, “I need one of these sheep to offer as a sacrifice,” I can imagine him saying, “Wait just a minute,” and then—in the same way the Divine Shepherd became a human being—this Good Shepherd would become the sacrificial lamb, and offer himself willingly for the sake of his flock. I can imagine that. That seems so much like Jesus. And apparently the author of Revelation could imagine that, and helps us picture this Lamb who was slaughtered now standing on his feet again, raised from the dead by a God who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love,” a God who honors his son’s willingness to lay down his life for the sake of his sheep.
And that’s us.
Friends I don’t know what kind of hard times you may be going through, but in today’s reading from Revelation there is a flock no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, an incredibly diverse multitude standing before the throne and before the lamb, robed in white, waving palm branches. They cry out with a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” One of the elders asks John, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” but John says he doesn’t know. So, the elder says, “These are they who have come out of the Great Ordeal.” And any Christian in the Empire would have known who John was talking about. He was talking about those brothers and sisters in Christ who had suffered at the hands of Caesar Domitian and died for their faith. “They have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb,” the elder continues. And any Christian in the Empire would have known that whatever sins these martyrs carried with them had been forgiven, that they were now perfect and pure forever. “For this reason they are before the throne of God,” the Elder says, “and worship him day and night within his temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”[vii]
As I said, I don’t know what kind of hard times you may be going through, but here is an image to keep you going: the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, slaughtered by the evil forces of the Roman Empire but raised by a gracious and merciful God—this Lamb at the center of the throne will be your shepherd. He will guide you to the springs of the water of life. And God himself will wipe away every tear from your eyes.
—Jim Somerville © 2022
[i] I didn’t actually record Dr. Blevins presentation to my New Testament class, but I do have a copy of his book, Revelation as Drama, which includes “John’s Testimony” as a first-person narrative. I’m quoting from that (Nashville: Broadman, 1984), pp. 11-12.
[ii] Blevins, Revelation as Drama, pp.13-14.
[iii] Daniel 7:3ff.
[iv] Blevins, Revelation as Drama, p. 14.
[v] Ibid., p. 13.
[vi] Ibid., pp.14-15.
[vii] Revelation 7:13-17, NRSV.