Revelation Rule #3: Know the Time Period

Thursday, September 20, 2018

(This post is part 4 of my 8 part series on interpreting Revelation faithfully. You can read the other posts in the series here.)

Rule #3: Revelation was written in the shadow of Rome’s imperial cult.

When we understand the time period, we can understand the circumstances under which John was writing the book of Revelation.

This idea isn't revolutionary. When someone you follow on Instagram makes a vague but political statement, you can probably discern what she is alluding to based upon what appeared in the newspaper that day. When your husband texts you with a quirky quote, you know its context because of the series you've been binging together on Netflix.

Similarly, John did not write from a vacuum. He wrote in a specific place during a specific time period. Piecing together what was happening, and specifically what John and his Christian audience perceived was happening, is where the challenge lies.

Here's what we do know: during the first century, the Roman emperors started declaring themselves divine, often assigning themselves the title “Son of God.” The early Christians were considered unpatriotic atheists because they refused to worship the Roman gods, instead declaring that the Jesus was the true Son of God. Refusing to honor the emperor was viewed as treason against the empire.

John was concerned that persecution would soon break out against the church. John himself was exiled on Patmos, a Roman penal colony, most likely for speaking out against the evils of Rome. It also appears that Antipas of Pergamum was killed for his faith (Rev. 2:13). It's unclear how much persecution occurred in the first century, but it does appear that it was sporadic and localized. One major moment in history was when Nero accused the Christians as being responsible for a fire in A.D. 64. Nevertheless, it's clear that John was anticipating a difficult time in the life of the Church. He was also concerned that the church would become complacent and bow to Rome’s imperial religion.

In Rule #2, we discussed how helpful it is to understand Revelation as a form of "resistance literature." Now that we have a feel for John's situation, we can better understand what John was persuading the early Christians to resist: Rome's imperial cult.

The book of Revelation is a critique, and sometimes a parody, of the Roman imperial cult. 

In Revelation, John calls out Rome's oppressive power and its very blasphemous claims. Rome claimed that she was chosen by the gods, her emperors were conduits of the gods' rule, and that all of her blessings were a result of the gods' favor. Temples, rituals, and images portraying these values were constructed all across the Roman Empire. Because Rome had successfully become the power she was through violence and enslavement (pax Romana), these means of power were sanctified as divine intervention. Moreover, the emperor was worthy of praise and allegiance. Simply put, Rome's imperial cult was an inflation of "God and country."

 Revelation is an emphatic "no" to this ideology. In Revelation, John counters all of Rome's symbols with prophetic symbols. Ultimate allegiance belongs not to a false demi-god, but to the one true living God. Success comes not from military prowess, but from faithful, non-violent resistance and dependence upon the Lamb who was slain.

Do some of Rome's religious claims sound familiar? That's because we in the 21st Century live in kingdoms and nations, even democratic republican nations, that hold to similar, false, theopolitical claims. But I'm getting ahead of myself. More on that later in another rule!

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