Revelation Part Two: Deep Dive
Revelation is a political statement of great proportions. The Roman Empire of the 1st Century would not have taken lightly the political implications of this text. Now I am not going to get into the Eschatological debates of whether this book is to be read as Futurist, Preterist, Historicist or Spiritual. For me the book of Revelation is a diamond, the more I read it the more I am aware how multi-faceted and multi-sided it is. To limit this book to our natural order is to limit the God who gave us this Revelation. So, as we study the historical context of the book of Revelation in this Deep Dive, I am not limiting this book to the 1st Century application only but I want to present you with a greater understanding of the time in which it was written so that you can get a fresh revelation balanced in the historical context of the book. Do I feel that Revelation is a book only for the 1st Century reader? To that, I would say yes and no, I see the value in reading this book, like all books of the Bible within the context it was written in. I think this ensures that my application for my life today comes from the historical context rather than westernising or deconstructing the text in ways it should not be. But I would also answer yes, I do understand that you cannot limit this book to the 1st Century, it is meant to bless all who read it with a hope for the future and an understanding of the end of days. So, with that in mind, let me show you the political nature of this text so you can have a fresh look at another side of this diamond.
Revelation was written in the first century when the Roman Empire dominated the territory and people around the Mediterranean Sea. The Roman Empire was an aristocratic empire, meaning that the small elite of 2-3% of the population shaped the social experience of the empire’s inhabitants, determined their ‘quality’ of life, exercised power and controlled the wealth. The rest of the society lived in situations that Carter defines “at best livable and at worst very miserable.” The Empire was an agrarian empire (wealth and power based on the land) and a legionary empire (ruling by coercion). Emperors ruled by loyal legions (the army’s organizational unit) that exercised sovereignty, enforced submission and intimidated those who contemplated revolt. These legion armies enforced the Pax Romana or Roman Peace that was established after centuries of warfare.
The line between human and divine had always been thin in Greek religion, and as such, they built temples to Roman Emperors, the first of these being in Ephesus and Smyrna (two of the seven churches this letter is addressed to). In Rome, the Imperial cult was viewed as a symbol of loyalty to the Roman state, and emperors were deified, some after they died but some claimed to be gods while still alive (Gaius Caligula, Nero and Domitian).
The emperor was referred to as ‘Father of the Fatherland’ and also ‘lord’ (kurios) and ‘saviour’ (soter). Rome was not tolerant of alternate political ideas, with the book of Revelation clearly reflecting ‘polemical writing against the Empire and all who collude with it’. John was sending a prophetic message and ‘a new perspective’ into the political situation of the Christians of the 1st Century to encourage them to follow Christ and to not enter into any form of worship or allegiance to ‘the beast’ - Rome.
John wrote the book intending a reaction and change of behaviour in his audience, he wanted to create a symbolic world which its readers can enter and ‘thereby have their perception of the world in which they lived transformed. By using literary effects John was counteracting the powerful images of the Roman vision of the world. We see this in chapter 17, the vision of a woman, she seems like the goddess Roma, a stunning personification of the civilization of Rome, as she was worshipped in many temples in Asia. But John’s readers are given Rome’s true character – ‘her moral corruption behind the enticing propagandist illusions of Rome’. As Bauckham describes the parallel sections of 17:1 – 19:10 and 21:9 – 22:9 – John uses the parallel stories of the great harlot and the bride and the city of Babylon and the New Jerusalem. These literary effects cause John’s audience to react in either repentance or encouragement.
John also uses images that echo mythological images from his contemporary world including “the serpent” or “dragon” invoking not just the biblical roots in Genesis and Isaiah but John was evoking images from pagan mythology and religion. All of these effects are used by John to relate to the audience and to cause a reaction that would change their behaviour.
Richard Bauckham in his book The Theology of the Book of Revelation continues this understanding, he explains that The Roman Empire back in the 1st Century propagated its powers in the ancient world in religious terms. Emperors were worshipped as a deity, and your political loyalty was expressed through worshipping the Emperor as well as worshipping the different traditional gods of Rome. So, what we read in Chapter 4 of Revelation, is in effect a contest on earth of the divine sovereignty of God against the declaration of sovereignty of the Emperor. For John, the coming of God’s kingdom on earth must be the replacement of Rome’s pretend divine sovereignty by the true divine sovereignty of the One who sits on the heavenly throne’.
For the 1st Century readers, John was giving them a political choice – choose to worship the God who sits on the throne and Jesus Christ or choose to worship the Dragon and his beasts, Caesar and his Imperial Cult. As we see later in the book of Revelation some people make their choice to worship the beast found in Chapter 13:4, 8 and 12.
The key to understanding the political nature of this book is found in the study of the word ‘worship’. Now, what does worship mean? In Chapter 4:11 we see the 24 elders falling down before him ‘who sits on the throne’ and they ‘worship him’. Now this word worship is “proskuneo” meaning ‘to express in attitude or gesture one’s complete dependence on or submission to a high authority figure (fall down and) worship, to prostrate oneself before, and to do reverence to. Worship for them was a bodily experience – you worshipped with your whole body life and soul. I love this concept that the worship found in the throne room is complete reverence to God expressed with everything that you are! Now that same word is used for the people who are worshipping “the beast” in chapter 13. How interesting is that – Revelation shows the contest set before the people and John is calling his audience to choose who they will worship, who will they give their whole life, body and soul too.
You can imagine as this book was read out in the Churches the sound of murmurs and shock as this politically charged message unfolded. The “harlot” portrayed in the book lives well at her client’s expense but she also offers them the benefits of Roman rule (17:4) Bauckham confirms “Rome, the self-proclaimed eternal city, offered security to her subjects, and her own dazzling wealth seemed a prosperity in which her subjects could share. But Revelation portrays this ideology as a deceitful illusion.” Another political allusion is contained with the image of the beast who receives the mortal head wound. For the 1st Century Church, Bauckham confirms, this wounded head of the beast would be understood as emperor Nero, who committed suicide. In summarising all the political allusions in this text in his book The Theology of the Book of Revelation Bauckham states “Revelation advances a thorough-going prophetic critique of the system of Roman power. It is a critique which makes Revelation the most powerful piece of political resistance literature from the period of the early Empire. It is not simply because Rome persecutes Christians that Christians must oppose Rome. Rather it is because Christians must dissociate themselves from the evil of the Roman system that they are likely to suffer persecution.”
This incredible book was written to take a stand against a system of evil overtaking the Church. It is a multi-faceted diamond and I pray that as you continue to study the historical and political history of the book that the message of the book of Revelation comes across with more clarity, passion and depth than we could have ever imagined.