Sun, May 05, 2019
Butchering a metaphor
Revelation 5:11-14 by Craig de Vos
Series: Sermons

On Friday, a service was held at Westminster Abbey…

in London…

to commemorate fifty years of the Royal Navy’s “continuous at-sea deterrent”.

In other words, a service was held to commemorate that…

for fifty years…

Britain has had submarines on constant patrol…

each one armed with forty nuclear warheads…

with each warhead about eight times more powerful than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

The invitation-only service was described as a “national 

service of thanksgiving”.

Activists from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament protested from across the road…

booing, and shouting, “shame on you”…

as Prince William’s car pulled up and he entered the Abbey.

At the same time, a counter-service was held in a small church…

some five kilometres away.

The priest who organised it––

the Reverend Matthew Harbage––

said he was disappointed with the Abbey…

and he wanted people “to recognise the contradiction between Jesus Christ, who gave his life for others, and nuclear weapons, which can only be used for killing”.


As Martin Luther King jr pointed out, the church has often “served to crystallize, conserve, and even bless…the authority of the world”.

Instead, he insists:

“The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool”.

Sadly, however, that is precisely what it has so often been.

Ever since the fourth century…

when the Emperor Constantine legalised Christianity and subsequently “converted”…

there’s been this fraught symbiotic relationship––

the church seeking to use the power of the state to its own ends…

and the church acquiescing with… 

or actively participating in… 

the state’s exercise of power.

In so doing… 

King notes… 

the church has sanctioned “slavery, racial segregation, war, and economic exploitation”––

and I’m sure that we could add to that list!

And yet, perhaps, the problem goes back even further than Constantine.

Perhaps we see the seeds of it in our reading this morning from Revelation.

Here, John has a vision of worship in heaven.

And the whole scene is modelled on an ancient Oriental royal court:

God sits on a throne––

surrounded by servants and intermediaries––

and God’s subjects bow in fealty and obeisance before the throne…

extolling God in song.

And what is it that they acknowledge?

What do they worship?

“Power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory”––

the very things with which an earthly king would have been concerned.

And if, perhaps, God and earthly kings operate in much the same way…

and if the king also ‘claims’ to follow God––

as Constantine did––

then it’s easier to go along with the king’s exercise of earthly power.

True, John conceived of God as an alternate authority demanding an alternate loyalty––

over and against the Emperor of Rome––

but it was still conceived in the same way.

It was still exercised in the same way…

thereby sowing the seeds for later centuries.

And isn’t it true that how we imagine things––

the images that we use…

and the language that we describe them with––

shapes our beliefs, our attitudes, our values, our assumptions, and our actions.

Conceiving of God as an all-powerful Ruler––

a Sovereign Lord––

may be somewhat comforting when…

like John’s readers…

you’re afraid of the exercise of the Emperor’s power.

But when we conceive of God as an all-powerful being…

who demands unwavering allegiance…

who dishes out favours and punishments…

and who sits, at all times, ready to judge us…

then we create the sort of uncaring and legalistic framework that underpins how we have understood Jesus Christ…

and the cross.

It’s underpinned the whole idea that Jesus had to die as a blood sacrifice for us…

in order to appease an angry God.

And, on one level, the description of Jesus in our reading seems to support that.

Indeed, it’s here that we encounter what is the dominant image of Jesus in Revelation… 

as “the Lamb that was slain”. 


And yet, this image––

which John uses––

is actually subversive.

It even subverts and deconstructs the whole scene and image that he has created. 

That’s especially clear in the original Greek. 

First, the word that he uses for ‘lamb’ is not the usual term.

It’s a diminutive.

The image is, almost, of a newborn lamb.

The image implies and emphasises vulnerability––

indeed, that’s how it’s used elsewhere in the Bible.

It’s certainly not the term that is used for a sacrificial lamb.

Second, the word translated as ‘slain’ is not the word that is used for a ritual sacrifice.

There’s another Greek word for that.

Rather, this word translates better as “slaughtered”, “butchered”, or “murdered”.

As one commentator puts it, “this is slaughterhouse language, not Temple language”.

And nowhere––

either here, or elsewhere in Revelation––

is that slaughtering seen as personally redemptive…

in the sense that it deals with individual human ‘sin’.

The image of Jesus––

here, and throughout Revelation––

is not of a lamb that has been sacrificed to appease God…

certainly not by God;

but as an innocent victim who was senselessly butchered.

And, through the vindication of the resurrection, his death became a demonstration…

that human violence, prejudice, oppression, and power do not…

will not…

and cannot have the last word;

and that evil will not, ultimately, triumph over good.

For John, Jesus’ death and resurrection is primarily about God overcoming human evil––

and establishing God’s righteous reign––

not the forgiveness of sins.

The paradox of the powerless, slaughtered lamb––

who is raised by God to ‘reign’––

deconstructs how we understand power…

and how we understand God.

It critiques and deconstructs the church’s thirsting for earthly power and influence.

It critiques and deconstructs the church’s acquiescence with the ways of the world.

It even critiques and deconstructs the church’s obsession with individualised morality…

and individualised salvation.

And it calls us––

as followers of Jesus, the Lamb who was slain––

to a life of vulnerable self-giving.

That is how evil is and will be overcome.

That is how God’s righteous reign is and will be realised.