REVELATION 7:9-17

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. 10 They cried out in a loud voice, saying,

“Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!”

11 And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, 12 singing,

“Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom
and thanksgiving and honor
and power and might
be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

13 Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, “Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from?” 14 I said to him, “Sir, you are the one that knows.” Then he said to me, “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.

15 For this reason they are before the throne of God,
    and worship him day and night within his temple,
    and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them.
16 They will hunger no more, and thirst no more;
    the sun will not strike them,
    nor any scorching heat;
17 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.”

One of our best examples of “dispatches from the edge of empire” is the New Testament book of Revelation. It was written during a time of persecution, when Christians (and other anti-imperial Jews) were being hunted down by Roman authorities for their unwillingness to give proper devotion to Caesar. The presence of such dissidents in an already unstable region would only spur other rebels and freedom fighters to resist the supremacy of Rome. Emperor Domitian (reigned 81-96 CE) was especially ruthless in his campaign to uproot resistance, particularly in Palestine, and it was during this time that the book was likely written.

We shouldn’t be surprised that a good number of nominal Christians – those attached to the movement out of curiosity, convenience, or personal benefit – did indeed relinquish their loyalty to the movement when their lives were on the line. For obvious reasons, this was a cause of deep concern for those with the larger and longer frame of history in mind. If Rome was successful in killing the kingdom movement of Jesus, his ideals of human liberation, compassionate outreach, and a New Reality of justice, equality, and love would die with it.

In an effort to encourage and strengthen the fugitive Christians, this author (traditionally John) wrote dispatches from the edge of empire, possibly from the island of Patmos where he had been exiled. This writing was heavily encoded with the imagery of myth, metaphor, and apocalyptic fantasy – codes that his Christian audience would have certainly understood, but which would have confounded any imperial interceptor. Many of these local and contemporary correlations are lost on the modern reader, removed as we are by thousands of miles and years of history. But a careful contextual reading of Revelation has helped us move past a simplistic literal (end-time prophetic) interpretation, to one more grounded in its actual setting and intended purpose.

It isn’t hard to imagine the charge of hope and courage a first-century victim of state persecution must have felt when s/he made the identification between the throng, white-robed and gathered in worship around the majesty of God (not Caesar!), and the underground community of Christians to which s/he belonged. I am not alone in this darkness. Many others, just like me, are holding fast to the faith. We will make it together! But even if death should come to me, the torch of our cause will not go out.

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