Two Ways to Conquer
The book of Revelation completely redefines our concept of “victory”. For the Romans, “Nike” was the goddess of victory (also known as “Victoria” in Latin). She had two wings, and was thought to fly around on the battle field granting speed and strength to the victors. The Romans carried symbols of “Nike” on their flags. They would burn incense to “victory” as they entered the Roman senate building. All throughout the Roman Empire, cities had statues of “Nike” with her foot on the globe, reminding everyone that Rome had conquered the world.
The conflict between patriotic Romans and the church grew especially strong in Asia minor, the center of the imperial cult. Shortly after the close of the New Testament, Christians in this area would be executed or imprisoned simply for remaining steadfast in their confession to be Christians.
It was in this world that John wrote is not-so-subtle challenge to the Roman concept of victory. The Greek word “nikao” (translated “victory” or “conquer” or “overcome”) appears 17 times in the book of Revelation. By tracing John’s usage of this word throughout his book it becomes clear that Jesus’ idea of “victory” stands in stark contrast to that which was worshiped by the Romans.
Jesus Promises Blessings to the Victors
The first eight appearances of “nikeo” are found in the first three chapters, as Jesus promises blessings to those who “overcome”.
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, I will grant to eat of the tree of life which is in the Paradise of God. (Rev. 2.7)
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. He who overcomes will not be hurt by the second death. (Rev. 2.11)
He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To him who overcomes, to him I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, and a new name written on the stone which no one knows but he who receives it. (Rev. 2.17)
He who overcomes, and he who keeps My deeds until the end, “To him I will give authority over the nations” (Rev. 2.26)
He who overcomes will thus be clothed in white garments; and I will not erase his name from the book of life, and I will confess his name before My Father and before His angels. (Rev. 3.5)
He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God, and he will not go out from it anymore; and I will write on him the name of My God, and the name of the city of My God, the new Jerusalem, which comes down out of heaven from My God, and My new name. (Rev. 3.12)
He who overcomes, I will grant him to sit down with Me on My throne, as I also overcame and sat down with My Father on His throne. (Rev. 3.21)
Throughout the Roman Empire there was a familiar saying: “Victory belongs to the Romans, for they have slain more than their enemies.” For the early Christians, this must have felt all too true. It would have been difficult to travel through any major city, or to conduct any type of regular business, without seeing images of Nike everywhere, continually reminding them who was in charge.
And yet, despite all appearances, Jesus promises that His followers will be the ones who will be blessed in victory. It must have felt almost unbelievable. But to understand how Christians could expect to be victorious, we must continue reading this theme as it develops in John’s Revelation.
A Surprising Image of the Conqueror
Revelation 5 takes us with John to the heavenly throne room, where we are given one of the most crucial and surprising images in the book of Revelation. Here John sees a mighty angel (v. 2) holding a scroll with seven seals. The problem is that it seems no one is worthy to open the scroll (v. 3), causing John to weep (v. 4).
It is at this point that we are introduced to the Lion of the Tribe a Judah (a familiar image for the Messiah – cf. Gen. 49.9).
Stop weeping; behold, the Lion that is from the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has overcome so as to open the book and its seven seals. (Rev. 5.5)
As we would expect of a victorious Messiah, we are told that the lion is not only worthy to open the scroll, but that he has “overcome”. He has won the victory! He has done it! He has conquered! He is here!
But here, John gives us a most unexpected image. What John “heard” was the announcement of a victorious Lion. But what he “saw” was a slain lamb.
And I saw between the throne (with the four living creatures) and the elders a Lamb standing, as if slain. (Rev. 5.6)
What he sees seems to stand in stark contrast with what he heard. A victorious lion and a slain lamb seem about as opposite as they could be. One is a symbol of ultimate power. The other is a symbol of gentle vulnerability, and through its sacrifice, the weakness of death.
Here, in this one vision, the two images are fused together into one. From this moment on, John and his careful readers, are to understand that the victory won by the Lion was accomplished through the death of the Lamb.
Images of Roman Victory
In contrast to this image of the slain lamb, John’s Revelation also utilizes multiple images to depict the Roman idea of victory. In the vision of the seven scrolls (Rev. 6), the Roman idea of victory is represented by four powerful horses of Roman power: conquest, war, famine, and death.
The first horse brings victory, or “conquering”, which is repeated twice in verse 2 for emphasis:
I looked, and behold, a white horse, and he who sat on it had a bow; and a crown were given to him, and he went our conquering and to conquer.
When they have finished their testimony, the beast that comes up out of the abyss will make war with them, and overcome them and kill them. And their dead bodies will lie in the street of the great city which mystically is called Sodom and Egypt, where also their Lord was crucified. (Rev. 11.7-8)
It was also given to him to make war with the saints and to overcome them, and authority over every tribe and people and tongue and nation was given to him. (Rev. 13.7)
Lamb Victory vs Beast Victory
By presenting these two contrasting images of “conquering”, the plot tension is set. Sandwiched right between the two beast scenes is a scene in which Satan is described as making war on those who follow God. In other words, the two radically different styles of “conquering” face off against one another. On one side is the great dragon, who is called the devil and Satan (12.9). On the other side are those who keep the commandments of God and hold to the testimony of Jesus (12.17). It’s the ultimate showdown between Lamb-style victory and Beast-style victory.
The ultimate victory belongs to those who are faithful to the Lamb
Now the salvation, and the power, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of His Christ have come, for the accuser of our brethren has been thrown down, he who accuses them before our God day and night. And they overcame him because of the blood of the Lamb and because of the word of their testimony, and they did not love their life even when faced with death. (Rev. 12.10-11)
Notice carefully how God’s people win the ultimate victory over Satan. Following Jesus’ path to victory means that we conquer, not by shedding the blood of others, bur rather by identifying with Jesus’ own blood which was shed when he was crucified by the Romans. Or, as John put it, “They did not love their life even when faced with death.”
Revelation’s first century readers knew all too well the conquering power of Rome. They were it’s victims. But the message of the book of Revelation is clear. The dragon and the beasts with their “conquering” do not have the final word.
The Victory of the Lamb
In Revelation 15.2 it is those who have conquered the beast who are seen standing beside the sea of glass with harps in their hands praising God.
And I saw something like a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had been victorious over the beast and his image and the number of his name, standing on the sea of glass, holding harps of God.
In Revelation 17:14 it is the Lamb who goes out conquering the other “lords” and “kings”, and those who are faithful to Him are victorious.
These will wage war against the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, because He is the Lord of lords and King of kings, and those who are with Him are called chosen and faithful.
In Revelation 21:7, it is the one who conquers who receives the heritage of the new heavens and new earth.
He who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son.
The book of Revelation points us to the cross to completely reframe our entire concept of victory. The cross was the ultimate tool for imposing Roman conquest. But because of Jesus, the Roman cross has been defeated. Victory belongs to the slain Lamb.
The real victors are those who conquer by the blood of the lamb. They love not their lives, even when faced with death. In contrast to the Roman conquest of victory through military conquest, Revelation proclaims that the victors are those who “follow the Lamb, wherever He goes” (14.4), even when that means following the Lamb to his death (Rev. 12.11).