The book of Revelation is specifically addressed to seven Christian churches in Asia which are located near the island where the apostle John is currently exiled. In this letter, the churches are addressed in the order shown below, and we can see how a nice travel route could be worked out to circulate this letter through all of these cities.
These churches were located well within the borders of the Roman Empire, which had grown very massive in size.
Now we can tell by the contents of this letter that the Christians it is speaking to consider themselves to be in dire straits. The Roman Empire is going to be depicted in the worst possible light in this book. When modern day Christians pair the concepts of Christian persecution with the Roman Empire, many think of the name Nero. Why is this? And why are Christians facing such intense persecution at this time? Let’s start with a brief history lesson.
THE DEIFICATION OF EMPERORS
Back when Jesus was just a baby, Augustus was the emperor of Rome, and he started a policy of saying some Roman emperors ought to be viewed as gods. This became known as the Imperial Cult, and deified emperors were viewed as having equal status with other Roman gods. Now not just any fool could be voted into the Imperial Cult by the Roman Senate. You had to be worthy. Sound familiar? We Christians play similar games today with the Catholic pope sainting people after death. Well, there’s nothing new under the sun. Humans are born wanting to dominate their Creators, and deifying ourselves seems like an obvious step in the right direction.
So as Jesus is growing up, we’ve got Augustus starting this new thing of Roman emperors getting viewed as gods. Well, Christianity doesn’t officially launch until Jesus returns from the grave. But of course the Jews have a problem with having polytheism shoved on them because the Jews say that Yahweh is the only real God. This is terribly ironic, because for the whole Old Testament, the Jews have worshiped a whole pantheon of idols. There’s a gap of about 400 years between the Old and New Testaments, and when we start the New Testament, we find that the Jews have become zealous believers in monotheism: the belief that there is only one true God. Obviously this causes major friction between them and the Roman government, for in Bible times, there was no separation between church and state. Every culture had their national gods, and to speak against those gods was considered treasonous.
Now after Augustus launches the Imperial Cult idea, we have three more emperors who reign during the early years of the Church: Tiberius (who only lasts until three years after the ascension of Christ), Caligula, and Claudius. Then we come to Nero. What was the big deal about Nero?
NERO (Reigned AD 54-68)
Nero’s mother Agrippina was a power hungry, alpha type who was hell bent on getting her son onto the throne. Little Nero wasn’t in line to inherit the throne from Claudius, because he wasn’t Claudius’ son. No problem. Agrippina simply poisoned her own husband, murdered Claudius’ current wife, and then married Claudius herself so that her son could gain closer access to the throne. Agrippina was Claudius’ niece. Nothing like a little family incest. Agrippina then set to work talking Claudius into favoring little Nero over Claudius’ own son. When Claudius died, Agrippina declared 17 year old Nero to be the next emperor and she had just enough political support to pull it off.
So there Nero was: 17 years old and utterly lacking in the maturity he needed to run an empire. As often happens in these situations, two other men ran the empire on Nero’s behalf while Nero was supposed to finish growing up. Well, with Agrippina for a mother, we can understand why Nero was a troubled fellow. Used to having his own way in everything, Nero became more and more unruly. When Agrippina’s fury over Nero bucking her authority became tiresome, Nero murdered her. Then he murdered the woman Agrippina had made him marry.
Nero was a picture of arrested development. He partied in the streets. He staged theatrical performances for himself to star in. He nearly chucked the whole emperor thing to pursue the arts, but then decided not to.
Now in AD 64, a great fire swept through Rome, which was the capital city of the Roman Empire. The fire did terrible damage. Nero wasn’t in Rome at the time, but when he heard about the fire, he hurried back and personally searched through rubble to help find victims and he personally funded many relief efforts. So the man was not a total creep. But his rebuilding efforts were so ridiculously extravagant that the general public developed conspiracy theories that Nero had intentionally torched the city so he’d have an excuse to give it a major revamping in a style that pleased him, which included a gargantuan palace which was planned to cover a third of the city and an enormous statue of himself.
To get the heat off of himself for starting the fire, Nero blamed the Christians. Romans already had a low view of Christians, believing them to be involved in all kinds of wicked practices. Before this time, the Roman government hadn’t really distinguished between Jews and Christians, especially since Christianity came out of the Jewish nation. Nero needed a convenient scapegoat to blame in order to protect his own reputation during the civil unrest that always follows after a culture undergoes major loss and devastation. The Christians were the chosen target, and Nero ordered them to be thrown to dogs, crucified and burned. We can certainly appreciate how such a decree would shock and terrify the early Church.
Seven emperors later, the old “You guys burned down Rome” excuse is no longer the popular reason for persecuting Christians. By the time of Revelation, a fellow named Domitian is on the throne, and he wants everyone to think like him when it comes to religious matters.
DOMITIAN (Reigned AD 81 – 96)
The Romans attempted to have some balance of power between the current king and the body of government officials known as the Roman Senate. But from ruler to ruler, that balance of power shifted depending on what kinds of policies were passed. Domitian was the kind of emperor who managed to hog all the power for himself and thus he became unrestrainable by the Senate. During the last three years of Domitian’s reign, things got out of hand as the emperor began chopping down any senators he didn’t like under the phony excuse of “treason.” This period has been labeled by historians as Domitian’s “reign of terror.” Whenever the emperor killed someone, he confiscated all of their property, and this thievery helped keep his financially strained empire afloat. When he executed his own cousin in AD 95, it seemed no one was safe from this tyrant’s murderous rampage. When Domitian was finally murdered by a plot that was aided by his wife, everyone celebrated and the Roman Senate had his memory officially condemned. Only the Roman army mourned Domitian’s passing for he had strategically secured their loyalty by giving them an increase in salary several years back.
Domitian’s reign lasted 15 years. This was the longest any Caesar had reigned since Tiberius, who reigned back during Jesus’ life on earth. So here a particularly troublesome emperor rises to power and then he just won’t go away: we can see why John would find this stressful.
Domitian took it upon himself to be a strict censor in his empire, monitoring morality in both the public and private lives of his people. He was a strict adherent to Roman religion and he demanded that everyone conform to his religious views. He claimed associations with the powerful god Jupiter, and he zealously worshiped the goddess Minerva. Minerva was supposed to be the offspring of Jupiter. According to Roman superstition, Jupiter slept with a female titan (or giant) named Metis. Worried that his offspring would overthrow him, Jupiter swallowed Metis while she was with child. Well, being swallowed doesn’t slow giant women down in Roman mythology. Metis not only gave birth to Minerva while inside of Jupiter, she also fashioned Minerva a set of weapons. It takes a lot of hammering to make weapons, and all that pounding gave Jupiter a raging headache. Happily, the god Vulcan came along and broke Jupiter’s head open with a hammer. Out popped Minerva: fully grown and armed for battle. And here you thought the story of God dying on a cross for our sins sounded strange.
Now by the time of Domitian, people had become rather slack about worshiping the members of the Imperial Cult. Domitian revived this religion, and even gave himself the heady title of “Lord and God”. Now the way the Imperial Cult was set up, the family members of emperors could qualify as well, and Domitian deified his brother, his son (who died as an infant), and his niece. He also built the Temple of Vespasian and Titus, where his deified father and brother could be worshiped.
Domitian essentially functioned as a ruler with absolute power. He was known for his intolerance and brutal punishment of any violations of his laws. Some of the things he cracked down on were positive, such as adultery and officials taking bribes. But other things were problematic.
It’s vital to realize that at this time in history, to write anything unflattering about Domitian was punishable by exile or death. So if John wants to send a message to churches in Asia talking about how God is going to spank the emperor and the whole Roman Empire, he certainly can’t send it in plain speech. This is why we find the book of Revelation to be so packed with metaphorical language—far more so than previous prophecies by Yahweh. In the Old Testament, Yahweh does a lot of prophesying, yet He is always quite clear about who He’s ticked at. He specifically identifies the people He is speaking against, using titles like the king of Egypt; the king of Babylon, the king of Assyria, the king of Tyre. He clearly identifies His targets of destruction: Nineveh, Babylon, Memphis, Sidon. But when we get to Revelation, suddenly everything is veiled in mystery. All of the key characters have been turned into strange, mythological beings: multi-headed beasts, a woman enthroned in the heavens, men who go around wowing the world with their supernatural powers, a dragon sweeping stars out of the sky with its tail. Today we run wild with our interpretation of these things, trying to associate modern day people and places with the strange characters. Yet this is utterly absurd. One only has to realize what the climate of the day was in order to understand why the message of Revelation was so intentionally shrouded in symbolism.
John is on an island prison. Given Domitian’s intrusive censorship policies, it’s reasonable to assume John’s letter won’t be leaving Patmos without being screened by Roman officials. If one hint of anti-emperor sentiment is found in it now or later as it circulates through the seven churches, it will be destroyed. So there’s no room for plain speaking. What’s needed is a bunch of crazy imagery that’s so off the wall even wary Roman officials won’t suspect anything. Yet the imagery can’t be so far out there that no one else can understand what Jesus has said. Some kind of code must be used, and indeed one is being used. John is counting on the fact that some zealous Jews will be reading his letter—Jews who are as patriotic as he is and who are familiar with their nation’s history. Jews who will remember several key passages from the widely quoted books of Isaiah, Ezekiel and Daniel. Then all will become clear.
In our study, we’re going to try and read Revelation from the perspective of a Jew who was raised under the Old Covenant and is still deeply attached to Old Covenant concepts like the Tabernacle and the priesthood. This is the mindset that the apostle John would have been in.
Now today some scholars argue that the John who wrote Revelation wasn’t the John who walked with Jesus in the Gospels, but some random Jewish prophet. The main argument for this theory is that there is a marked difference in writing style and vocabulary being used in the book of John versus the book of Revelation. Well, if you’ve been a writer yourself for many years, you understand how lame it is to suggest that a man’s style can’t undergo a radical change in wording and tone over the course of his life. Revelation is a book that was thrown together in a hurry as Jesus poured out the visions thick and fast. We’re also dealing with an author who has undergone major trauma in his life, and who is currently in a very stressful situation. Such factors have an enormous impact on how a man writes. Scholars say the Greek used in Revelation isn’t as eloquent as it is in the Gospel of John. Well, let’s hand you a pen that doesn’t erase, a stack of paper, and see how eloquent you are as you rush to take notes on crazy images that are flying past your face. In this study, we are going to assume the apostle John is the author of this letter, for we have yet to come across any persuasive argument to the contrary.
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