Rome & the Book of the Revelation
Some sharp wit has said that “a text without a context is a pretext.” He was right. And that application needs to be made to the entire text of the Book of the Revelation. Unless we know the historical context of this book we shall find ourselves lost in confusion, instead of being caught up in wonder, love and praise.
Let me then give you a lesson in history. Roman history to be precise. Circumstances were grim for the Christian Church in its first century throughout the Roman empire, but they were terrible in the Province of Asia. The colonies of Rome took the demands of the emperor far more seriously than they did at home. The law was enacted with greater zeal. Emperor worship had become the state religion of the provinces and it was strictly enforced. Periodically the entire population had to come to the seat of local government to indicate their allegiance to Caesar. To do this they were required to burn incense at a shrine of the current Caesar and declare “Caesar is Lord.” In the Greek it reads, “KAISAR KURIOS”.
But no Christian could do that. Jesus Christ was the Lord. Worship belonged only to the true God. The Christian’s cry was “KRISTOS KURIOS”, Christ is Lord, not “KAISAR KURIOS”. But if they refused to pay homage, then their lives were put in jeopardy. It is no wonder that in the Greek language “To be a witness” and “to be a martyr” was the same word. “MARTUREO”.
But as if that were not bad enough. Persecution of that infant church came also from other quarters.
The Jewish leaders continued their persecution of the Christians. Their hostility was still as adamant as it had been earlier.
There were also cults within the church that were sapping the church’s foundations.
And inside the church there were those who urged compromise with Rome and the surrounding society.
A consequence was the early church had its back against the wall, fighting for its very life.
Life in the provinces
A letter, written to the Emperor Trajan in the year A.D. 112, less than 20 years after the Book of the Revelation was penned, written by a Roman magistrate called Pliny the Younger, illuminates the condition for Christians in Asia Minor. Here are the two letters:
Pliny the Younger to the Emperor Trajan
It is my rule, Sire, to refer to you in matters where I am uncertain. For who can better direct my hesitation or instruct my ignorance? I was never present at any trial of Christians; therefore I do not know what are the customary penalties or investigations, and what limits are observed.
I have hesitated a great deal on the question whether there should be any distinction of ages; whether the weak should have the same treatment as the more robust; whether those who recant should be pardoned, or whether a man who has ever been a Christian should gain nothing by ceasing to be such; whether the name itself, even if innocent of crime, should be punished, or only the crimes attaching to that name.
Meanwhile, this is the course I have adopted in the case of those brought before me as Christians. I ask them if they are Christians. If they admit it I repeat the question a second and a third time, threatening capital punishment; if they persist I sentence them to death. For I do not doubt that, whatever kind of crime it may be to which they have confessed, their tenacity and inflexible obstinacy should certainly be punished. There were others who displayed a like madness and whom I reserved to be sent to Rome (to be tried), since they were Roman citizens.
Thereupon the usual result followed; the very fact of my dealing with the question led to a wider spread of the charge, and a great variety of cases were brought before me. An anonymous pamphlet was issued containing many names. All who denied that they were or had been Christians I considered should be discharged because they called upon the gods at my dictation and did reverence, with incense and wine, to your image … together with the statues of the deities; and especially because they cursed Christ, a thing which, it is said, genuine Christians cannot be induced to do.
Others named by the informer first said they were Christians, and then denied it; declaring that they had been but were so no longer, some having recanted three years or more before and one or two as long as twenty years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods and cursed Christ.
But, they declare that the sum of their guilt or error had amounted only to this, that on an appointed day they had been accustomed to meet before daybreak, and to recite a hymn antiphonally to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by a sacrament, not for the commission of any crime, but to abstain from theft, robbery, adultery and breach of faith, and not to deny a deposit when it was claimed.
After the conclusion of this ceremony it was their custom to depart and meet again to take food; but it was ordinary and harmless food, and they had ceased this practice after my edict in which, in accordance with your orders, I had forbidden secret societies.
I thought it more necessary, therefore, to find out what truth there was in this by applying torture to two maidservants who were called deacons. But I found nothing but a depraved and extravagant superstition, and therefore postponed my examination and had recourse to you for consultation.
The matter seemed to justify my consulting you, especially on account of the number of those imperiled; for many persons of all ages and classes and of both sexes are being put in peril by accusation, and this will go on. The contagion of this superstition has spread not only in the cities, but in the villages and rural districts as well; yet it seems capable of being checked and set right.
There is no shadow of doubt that the temples, which have been almost deserted, are beginning to be frequented once more, that the sacred rites which have been long neglected are being renewed, and that sacrificial victims are for sale everywhere, whereas, till recently, a buyer was rarely to be found.
Trajan to Pliny the Younger
You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it–that is, by worshiping our gods–even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with the spirit of our age.
These were difficult days to be a Christian. A wide variety of responses began to take place across the church.
Some died for their faith, and became Martyrs.
Some surrendered their faith and became Apostates.
Some became Lapsarians. They lapsed conveniently when it was dangerous to be known as a Christian, then repented the following Sunday, and continued as Christians, until the next time the pressure was on, and then went through the same cycle again if needed.
Some found a very convenient escape. Many of the Christians who were from a Jewish background began to say, “Well, really we are Jews, Christian Jews, but Jews nonetheless.” And they continued to attend the synagogue, carry out all the Jewish practices, and hide their true identity. They were convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, the saviour of the world, but instead of boldly standing with Christ, they hid their true identity, and so stayed safe.
Others of Gentile background stayed behind closed doors. They did not defect into some old faith. They simply became secret disciples, closet Christians, who followed a far off.
It is against this backdrop that John writes the book of the Revelation. The church is in desperate straits. The churches are thinking about giving up, making compromises, or succumbing to pessimism. John is alarmed at this trend. A word from God is needed. That word comes in the book before us. This was a book written for suffering saints in a time of great crisis. It was a message fitted for their day and their need. It was not a secret book that no one could understand until the last days of human history. It was a strong word from God that would hold them up in this specific time of testing, and that would end up being a source of strength for every other generation of the suffering church.
Just in case you are interested, let me introduce you to the Roman Emperors of that first century A.D. and the accompanying events that affected Judaism and the Christian Church. It may help us read the Book of the Revelation more clearly.
Tiberius. A.D. 14 – 37
He was emperor during the ministry of Jesus and the beginnings of the church. The church had little to fear from him, for Jesus, the Apostles, and the church were unknown to him.
Caligula, A.D. 37 – 41
He was a son of Tiberius. He reigned only 4 years, but they were terrible years. He was both depraved and insane. He almost died very early in his reign and then recovered. It looked like a resurrection! He claimed to be God; God over all the gods. He demanded to be worshipped. He asked Petronius to place his image in the Holy of Holies in Jerusalem. The deed, however, was not done, since Caligula died before it could be carried out.
Claudius. A.D. 41 – 54
He was a nephew of Tiberius. He was physically deformed but shrewd. He expelled all Jews from Rome because of rioting over man named “Chrestus” (perhaps he meant Christus – the Christ). You may want to view the film series “I Claudius” to understand the state of the empire during his days.
Nero A.D. 54 – 68
Nero was the stepson of Claudius. He was only 17 when he began to reign. Chaos followed in his wake. He too was certifiably insane. In 64 A.D. Rome is on fire. The Christians are made the scapegoats for this crime and accused of atheism, cannibalism, debauchery, and treason. Nero too demanded worship. Paul & Peter were executed by Nero around 64. In 68 Nero was forced to commit suicide. But in popular imagination he lived on! Rumors began to spread throughout the empire that he did not really die. Or, if he died, he is coming back to life, and when he returns he will come leading the Parthian hordes to destroy Rome. Nero’s death also marked the end of the Julian dynasty.
Galba, Otho, & Vitellius. A.D. 68 – 69
The next 3 emperors would succeed each other in rapid succession, each man killing his predecessor. During this turmoil the Church is relatively safe, though only for a very brief time.
Vespasian. A.D. 69 – 79
The reign of Vespasian precipitates a terrifying event for Judaism. Judaism has been involved in a civil war (66-70) that Rome feels compelled to end. It does so with the destruction of the nation, the city of Jerusalem and its temple. The already scattered Church appears to have escaped the destruction of the city.
Titus. A.D. 79 – 81
He was the son of Vespasian. He was also the army general who carried out the destruction of Palestine under his father’s administration. The years that Vespasian & Titus ruled were relatively peaceful for the church, which continued to expand throughout the empire.
Domitian. A.D. 81 – 96
He was brother to Titus. He was never expected to rule, but the death of Titus was premature. Domitian initiated a reign of terror across the empire. He is seen by many to be Caligula and Nero returned to reign in their stead. He too demanded worship and issues an official persecution of the Christian Church. (Some think because his cousin & wife had converted to “atheism”.) On September 18, 96 AD he was stabbed to death. He was only 44 years old. The best educated guesses are that the Book of Revelation was written during the later years of his reign. It is he that is seen to be the Anti-Christ, a beast of a man.
Nerva. A.D. 96-98
Persecution continued as the norm, but not as virulent as his predecessor.
Trajan. A.D. 98-117
Persecution continues, but moderates under his administration.
As we read the Book of the Revelation, we may want to keep Rome in mind.