A Discussion of "Imperial Pretensions and the Throne-Vision of the Lamb: Observations on the Function of Revelation 5"
J. Daryl Charles initiates his analysis of early Christians and Rome (imperium Romanum) by emphasizing the tension that existed between the two parties. The first-century Christians refused to worship any other deity but the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (YHWH). So they consequently would not render Greco-Roman deities any allegiance, and this included emperors who had pretensions of being divine. Instead of giving allegiance to Caesar, the early followers of Jesus Christ worshiped God and rendered homage to the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 12:3). This tension between the Christian ecclesia and imperial Rome is played out in John's Apocalypse, "which represents a challenge to the Roman principate" (86).
Charles rightly depicts Rome as the "aggressor" in its numerous military activities and he believes this historical datum was not lost on the writer of Revelation. Hence, maybe for this reason and based on other factors, Revelation is replete with war imagery (Rev. 2:16-17; 12:7-12, 17; 19:11-21; 20:7-10). Yet despite the battle waged against the Christian ecclesia, the Lamb will conquer those opposing his followers (Rev. 17:14). Nevertheless, what about those Christian overcomers, who figuratively tread upon the serpent's head? Charles claims they will "reign on the earth" (page 86). To substantiate this point, he invokes Rev. 5:10; 20:6; 22:5.
Charles primarily mentions Christians reigning on earth to demonstrate the contrast between the Roman imperium and Messiah's rule. He explains how God's rule through Christ is exercised differently from current political systems, but Charles also explores important questions dealing with Roman rule including its religious and political aspects (86-7). To address these dual roles, Charles asserts that Rev. 5 supplies a "throne-vision of the Lamb" which contains both royal and sacerdotal elements in order "to reassure John's audience" (87). The article claims that John applies the language of "adoration and worship" normally rendered to "a deified emperor" to the Lamb (87). It is not possible to serve two masters, avers Charles: one must "worship" the conquering Lamb in place of the emperor. John calls upon the first-century assembly to make a decisive choice (88):
"Inasmuch as the Christians called Jesus Kyrios/Dominus, the same title could not legitimately be ascribed to the emperor--a dilemma interpreted plainly enough by Pliny. Ultimately, for the first-century Christian the matter comes down to a fundamental antithesis: Divus Imperator('Emperor Divine') or Christus Dominus ('Christ the Lord')."
Charles reminds us that Caesar only started to be recognized as Dominus from Emperor Domitian onwards, who reigned from 81-96 CE, even though Kyrios (the corresponding Greek term) was applied to Caesar in the East "almost from the beginning" (88). Examining the overall context of ancient Rome and its relationship with the primitive ecclesia leads to a consideration of how Rev. 5 possibly functions in this regard.
Many views have been expressed about Revelation 5, but Charles maintains that chapters 4 and 5 of Revelation have liturgical, religious, and political importance: "The central fact that pervades heaven is the absolute authority of God" (88). God sits upon the throne (Rev 4); exousia flows out from his right hand (5:1, 7); divine judgments emanate forthwith and dramatically (89). In climactic fashion, the Lamb steps forward to open the scroll, which none in heaven or upon earth can break open. The "Lion-Lamb" is simultaneously Savior and Conqueror--Charles insists that these images must be understood within the context of Roman imperialism (89).
Imperial Rome supposedly was a political and ecclesiastical entity: it promoted adoration of the state and of the Emperor. Being a state was not so offensive to the early Christians as were the pretensions to potestas absoluta by Rome. The imperium demanded ultimate allegiance from the ancient followers of Jesus Christ--a type of loyalty which they could not render unto Caesar (90).