Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Spectacle of the Roman Triumph

Our Wednesday night bible study is in Colossians. We studied Colossians 2:13-15 this week. We especially enjoyed Colossians 2:15-

"And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross."

I used the NIV translation there because I like the word 'spectacle'. The word in Greek is deigma, and the definition is "I hold up as an example, make a show of, expose." (Strong's 1165)

I love to think of how the demons were partying down when Jesus died on the cross, and suddenly He shows up! It is always especially humiliating when you're at the pinnacle of gloating and someone comes along to puncture your balloon and show how wrong you were.

Barnes Notes says of the verse, (I really like Barnes Notes, and I use them a lot)
The terms used in this verse are all military, and the idea is, that Christ has completely subdued our enemies by his death. A complete victory was achieved by his death, so that every thing is now in subjection to him, and we have nothing to fear. ... He made a show of them openly - As a conqueror, returning from a victory, displays in a triumphal procession the kings and princes whom he has taken, and the spoils of victory. This was commonly done when a "triumph" was decreed for a conqueror. On such occasions it sometimes happened that a considerable number of prisoners were led along amidst the scenes of triumph. Paul says that this was now done "openly" - that is, it was in the face of the whole universe.


So then I'm reading along in 1 Corinthians 4:9, and I see that word spectacle again

"For I think that God has exhibited us apostles as last of all, like men sentenced to death, because we have become a spectacle to the world, to angels, and to men."

Once again, the allusion is military. After a successful military campaign, a triumphal procession was held. Flowers were strewn along the triumphal route, so that when the horses, chariots, and carts rolled over them, the fragrance of the triumph would permeate the city. A triumph granted to a general was the crowning achievement of his career. It marked his victory over opposing forces and was a platform for him to assert personal power. 

Wikipedia explains the Roman Triumph:
"The Roman triumph (triumphus) was a civil ceremony and religious rite of ancient Rome, held to publicly celebrate and sanctify the military achievement of an army commander who had won great military successes, or originally and traditionally, one who had successfully completed a foreign war."

"On the day of his triumph, the general wore regalia that identified him as near-divine or near-kingly, and a laurel wreath was held above his head. He rode in a chariot through the streets of Rome in unarmed procession with his army and the spoils of his war. At Jupiter's temple on the Capitoline Hill he offered sacrifice and the tokens of his victory to the god. Thereafter he had the right to be described as vir triumphalis ("man of triumph", later known as triumphator) for the rest of his life."
It was a spectacle, all right. This was the order of procession, which stayed the same during the 500 total Triumphs held over the 1900 year history of the Roman Empire:

Order of Procession:
  • The Senate, headed by the magistrates without their lictors.
  • Trumpeters
  • Carts with the spoils of war
  • White bulls for sacrifice
  • Exotic animals from the conquered land
  • The arms and insignia of the conquered enemy
  • The enemy leaders themselves, with their relatives and other captives
  • The lictors of the imperator, their fasces wreathed with laurel
  • The imperator himself, in a chariot drawn by two (later four) horses
  • The adult sons and officers of the imperator
  • The army without weapons or armor (since the procession would take them inside the pomerium), but clad in togas and wearing wreaths. During the later periods, only a selected company of soldiers would follow the commander in the triumph, as a singular honour.

To the Roman, the more impressive the array of high-ranking prisoners, famous names, kings, etc, the better the Triumphal parade. The more powerful, dangerous, or news-worthy the prisoner, the better the public spectacle of their execution.

Barnes explains his interpretation of the public spectacle of the apostles, setting the scene in the Roman Colosseum as an example:

"Paul represents himself as on this arena or stage, contending with foes, and destined to death. Around him and above him are an immense host of human beings and angels, looking on at the conflict, and awaiting the issue. He is not alone or unobserved. He is made public; and the universe gazes on the struggle. Angels and human beings denote the universe, as gazing upon the conflicts and struggles of the apostles. The expression means that he was public in his trials, and that this was exhibited to the universe. The whole verse is designed to convey the idea that God had, for wise purposes, appointed them in the sight of the universe, to pains, and trials, and persecutions, and poverty, and want, which would terminate only in their death."

See Hebrews 12:1 for a similar word-picture of the universe looking on in this ongoing battle of darkness and light:

"Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us"

And that is the interpretation that came to my mind when I compared the two verses of God using Jesus and then the apostles to make a spectacle to the universe. In the former case, with Jesus descending and declaring His triumph over the demons personally, and in the latter case with Paul expressing the view that they (and we) are on display, it seems to me that we are duly reminded by scripture of two things:

1. God points to His own glory and His own sovereignty at all times and in all ways
2. God uses all beings to serve His purposes- whether demons, His own Son, Apostles, the unsaved, or His believing children.

Understanding that we are His spectacle, on display to a great cloud of witnesses, with the universe looking on and knowing even angels long to look into these things, (1 Peter 1:12), how might we behave? The Gospel is the universe's Triumph, the Good News from age to age, from beginning to end. It is the one and only processional that counts. We are privileged to be His captives, put on display for His purposes- whether unto death as martyr in a jeering theatre of mockers, or unto life as a display of His mercy.

Paul said it best, "But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads the fragrance of the knowledge of him everywhere." (2 Corinthians 2:14)

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