The boss of all kings
When I was in Eastern Europe in 1987, I got some sense of what it was like to live there. In Germany, one of the first things I noticed was that there were soldiers with rifles everywhere. We were instructed that we were not to take photos of any soldiers, so if there was an interesting church we could not take a picture if a soldier was standing in front of it.
I noticed that the people never smiled. It was as if they were resigned to living under communist rule and there was nothing they could do about it.
Christians who made their faith known had limited options. They were not free to choose the career they wanted; they had limited housing options; they could meet for music rehearsal but not for Bible study; and there were spies among them, pretending to be Christians, ready to report them to the authorities.
Especially in Russia, only those people who had permission to talk with foreigners were supposed to speak with us. If we saw someone on the street, we tried to greet them, but they looked away. They did not want to risk getting caught talking with us. Others were more daring. In the churches we visited, we were greeted warmly, but that was an exception.
While there were no arenas with gladiators and wild animals waiting to tear them limb from limb, people who lived behind the iron curtain were constantly on guard for those who might betray them. Everyone knew that there were torture chambers staffed by sadistic men just waiting for another unwilling victim. And Siberia was a train ride away, and a constant threat as well.
I imagine it was this kind of atmosphere for Jews and Christians in the ancient world, ruled by the Romans. Around the time of Jesus, the emperors began to believe they were divine. Everyone was expected to worship the Roman gods, bowing down to them, giving them offerings, praying to them. The Jews and Christians refused to do this, and it got them into trouble.
In ancient Rome, the face of the current, living emperor was printed on the coins of the day. For obedient Jews and Christians, this caused a serious problem. Handling Roman money meant they were worshiping other gods besides the Jewish Lord. So, they did not shop in the markets using the currency of the day, but bartered for what they needed with other Jews and Christians. Meats were slaughtered in the market to idols, so Jews and Christians avoided the meat markets. Jews and Christians then were not part of the local economy; they were not supporting the local shops.
There were several organized persecutions of the Christians and Jews in the Roman Empire, especially in the 60’s under Nero, in the 80’s and 90’s under Domitian, and several more times in the first two centuries. Jews were more tolerated than Christians, however, because it was understood that they had their own set of laws, and they followed them. On the other hand, the Christians were seen as a cult with strange rituals, such as eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood. So, Christians were especially singled out in the ancient Roman world.
To avoid persecution, neighbors turned in neighbors, much the same way as it happened in communist Russia. Many Christians were arrested and tried and often sent to prison or even to the gladiator arenas where they died as martyrs for their faith. Many Christians also denied their faith or pretended to worship the idols, to stay safe and to feed their families. Many Christians abandoned their faith in Jesus.
The book of Revelation was written to give hope to Christians living under these persecutions. Of course, it needed to be written in code. Aleksandr Solzhenitzyn could not openly publish his books until the communist regime had ended. Neither could John of Patmos write his revelation in a way that the Romans would know he was writing about them.
In John’s Revelation, the world can be a horrible place. Monsters arise out of chaotic waters; scrolls are opened and read; horses and riders bring messages; and so forth. In the end, Jesus, the Lamb, the slaughtered one, rises against all monsters and saves those who believe in him.
Translating the coded language of Revelation with the help of our knowledge of the culture of the first century, we can understand that John is saying that Jesus is eventually victorious over all kings, all rulers, especially the evil ones.
It’s important to notice that John does not eliminate the hierarchy of kings and princes and governors. There was nothing in the culture to replace it; socialism and democracy were centuries away yet. John simply demonstrates that Jesus is the boss of all the rulers on the earth, for all time. Jesus is the king of all kings. Jesus rules with grace and mercy for all, rather than with special privilege for those who agree with him, and violence and punishment for those who disagree with him.
For us today, living in the US under democratic rule, knowing that Jesus wins in the end may or may not comfort us. In our day to day lives, we still suffer illness, injustice, inequality of wealth, unemployment, and so forth. It is no comfort to us that those who take advantage of us will be judged in the end. We’d much prefer that God would judge them and punish them today. But that is not God’s way.
In fact, God wants us to gather together and stand up to injustice ourselves. Jesus’ true disciples work hard against injustice. We are priests serving our King Jesus. Jesus wants us to help him feed the hungry, and he wants to speak through us to end the causes of hunger by challenging the oppressive systems of our time.
Christ our King calls us to be loyal subjects, obedient to him and his reign above our loyalty to our country, or our job, or our family, or ourselves. No matter how hard it is to do what Jesus wants us to do; no matter how much it seems like the bad guys are winning at the moment; no matter how much we have to struggle to stay faithful, we need only to remember that Jesus will win in the end. Jesus is the king, the boss, of all kings on earth, yesterday, today, and always.
Please pray with me. Jesus, our King, help us to be faithful to you, to trust you, and to serve you through serving your people. Amen