Chapter 12:<B> </B>The Revelation of John
It was a dangerous thing in the first century to be a Christian. Jesus himself had laid down his life for his cause, and the apostles Paul, Peter, James, and John met their deaths as martyrs, that is witnesses, to the new faith. Although Christianity was not yet a "licensed" or "permitted religion," yet to be a Christian was not against the Roman law, and through the first century we can trace the Christians’ hope that when at length the Roman government should decide what its attitude toward Christians was to be, the decision would be favorable. Luke points out that Pilate himself was disposed to release Jesus, and expressly says that neither Herod nor Pilate found any fault in him. Luke also brings out the fact that the proconsul Gallio at Corinth would not even entertain a charge against Paul, and that at Caesarea both Agrippa and the procurator Festus declared that Paul might have been released if he had not appealed to the emperor. Paul had encouraged his converts to honor the emperor, and obey the law, and in Second Thessalonians had referred to the emperor as a great restraining power holding the forces of lawlessness in check.
Nero’s savage outbreak against the Roman church must have startled and appalled Christians all over the world, but that attack, though severe, was short, and left the status of Christians before the law undecided as before. Nero’s victims suffered under the charge of burning the city, not that of being Christians, and Paul himself, as Luke indicates, was tried and probably executed as an agitator, not as a Christian. It is clear that representative Christians like Luke kept hoping that when a test case arose the Empire would not condemn the Christian movement and put Christians under its ban.
But these hopes were doomed to disappointment. Late in the reign of Domitian, the emperor-worship which had prevailed in some parts of the Empire since the time of Augustus began to threaten the peace of the churches. Earlier emperors had for the most part let it take its course, but Domitian found divine honors so congenial that he came to insist upon them. There was indeed an obvious political value in binding together the heterogeneous populations of the Empire, differing in speech, race, civilization, and religion, by one common religious loyalty to the august imperator, considered as in a certain sense divine. Most oriental peoples found this easy. Worshipping numerous gods, they did not much object to accepting one more.
With the Christians it was very different. Their faith forbade such an acknowledgment, and the scattered churches of Asia, where the matter first became acute, now witnessed the disappointment of their cherished hope of freedom to worship God undisturbed, in their own way. It is hard to realize all that this meant to them. Their early teachers had been mistaken. The Empire was not their friend and safeguard, to be loyally obeyed. It now suddenly appeared in its true colors as their bitter and unrelenting foe. For it inexorably demanded from them a worship of the emperor which Christians must refuse to accord. The church and the Empire were finally and hopelessly at war.
The Christian leaders of Asia must have realized this with stricken hearts, and they must have reviewed the history of the Christian movement from a new point of view. After all, what else could they have expected? Jesus, Paul, and Peter had suffered death for the Kingdom of God, and at the hands of Rome. In Nero’s day hundreds of others had perished in Rome at the emperor’s bidding. The Empire, as they now saw, had long since recorded its verdict, and it had been against them.
The matter of worshipping the emperor came home to the Christians of Asia in various forms. His name and likeness appeared on many of the coins they used. He had among them his provincial priesthood, charged with the maintenance of his worship throughout Asia. Christians might be called upon, as Pliny tells us they were twenty years later to worship the image of the emperor. It was customary to attest legal documents --contracts, wills, leases and the like -- with an oath by the fortune of the emperor. Refusal to make this sworn endorsement would at once involve one in suspicion and lead to official inquiries as to the apparent disloyalty of the person concerned to the imperial government. Why not then make the oath? It was after all a purely formal matter with all who used it. Why not simply add to one’s business documents, as everyone did, the harmless words, "And I make oath by the Emperor Domitianus Caesar Augustus Germanicus that I have made no false statement"? So slight an accommodation might seem a very excusable way to gain security and peace.
But in even slight concessions to pagan practice the Christian leaders of Asia saw a serious peril. There must be no compromise. The church might perish in the conflict, but the conflict could not be avoided. The church must brace itself for the struggle, and compromising was not the way to begin. On the contrary, the church must absolutely disavow everything pertaining to the wicked system through which the devil himself was now assailing it. For in the Empire the Asian Christians now recognized not a beneficent and protecting power but an instrument of Satan.
Among the first victims of the kindling persecution was a Christian prophet of Ephesus, named John. He seems to have been arrested on the charge of being a Christian and banished to the neighboring island of Patmos, perhaps condemned to hard labor. He could no longer perform for his Asian fellow-Christians the prophet’s work of edification, comfort and consolation described by Paul in First Corinthians, though they needed it now as never before. But he might hope to reach them by letters, and, as he wrote these to the seven leading churches of Asia, his message expanded into a book. He uses the cryptic symbolic forms of the old Jewish apocalypses, of Daniel or Enoch, in which empires and movements figure in the guise of beasts and monsters, and the slow development of historical forces is pictured as vivid personal conflict between embodiments of rival powers. Indeed, his message is one that may not be put in plain words, for it contains a bitter attack upon the government under which the prophet and his readers live.
The canon of the writings of the prophets had long been regarded by the Jews as closed, and anyone who wished to put forth a religious message as a work of prophecy had therefore to assume the name of some ancient patriarch or prophet. But the Christians believed the prophetic spirit to have been given anew to them, and a Christian prophet had no need to disguise his identity. John in Patmos writes to the neighboring churches as their brother, who shares with them the agony of the rising persecution.
The task of the exiled prophet was to stiffen his brothers in Asia against the temptations of apostasy and compromise which the persecution would inevitably bring. He would arouse their faith. In the apparent hopelessness of their position, a few scattered bands of humble people arrayed against the giant world-wide strength of the Roman Empire, they needed to have shown to them the great eternal forces that were on their side and insured their final victory. For in this conflict Rome was not to triumph, but to perish.
The prophet’s letters to the seven churches convey to them the particular lessons that he knows they need. But one note is common to all the letters "To him that overcometh," to the victor in the impending trial, the prophet promises a divine reward. But this is only the beginning of his message. Caught up in his meditation into the very presence of God, the prophet in the spirit sees him, as Isaiah saw him, enthroned in ineffable splendor. In his hand is a roll crowded with writing and sealed seven times to shut its contents from sight. Only the Lamb of God proves able to unfasten these seals and unlock the mysterious book of destiny, which seems to contain the will of God for the future of the world and to need to be opened in order to be realized. Dreadful plagues of invasion, war, famine, pestilence, and convulsion attend the breaking of the successive seals, doubtless reflecting familiar contemporary events in which the prophet sees the beginning of the end. On the opening of the seventh seal seven angels with trumpets stand forth and blow, each blast heralding some new disaster for mankind. Despite these warnings men continue in idolatry and wickedness. The seventh trumpet at length sounds and proclaims the triumph of the Kingdom of God, to which the prophet believes all the miseries and catastrophes of his time are leading.
The victory is thus assured, but it has yet to be won. The prophet now sees the dragon Satan engaged by the archangel Michael and the heavenly armies. Defeated in heaven, the dragon next assails the saints upon the earth. In this campaign Satan has two allies, one from the sea -- the Roman Empire -- the other from the land -- the emperor cult of Asia. Again the prophet’s vision changes. Seven bowls symbolizing the wrath of God, now at last irrepressible, are poured out upon the earth. An angel shows him the supreme abomination, Rome, sitting on seven hills and drunk with the blood of the saints. Another angel declares to him her doom, over which kings and merchants lament, while a thunderous chorus of praise to the Lord God Omnipotent arises from the redeemed. The prophet’s thought hastens on from the fate of persecuting Rome and the imprisonment of Satan to the glorification of those who have suffered martyrdom rather than worship the emperor. As priests of God they reign with Christ a thousand years, until the great white throne appears, and the dead, small and great, stand before it for the final judgment.
These lurid scenes of plague and convulsion now give way to the serene beauty of the new heavens and the new earth, with the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God who makes all things new. Amid its glories God’s servants, triumphant after their trial and anguish, serve him and look upon his face.
The prophet begins with a blessing upon anyone who shall read his prophecy and upon those who shall hear it read. He closes with a warning against any tampering with its contents. The book is clearly intended to be read at Christian meetings. More than this, by its repeated claim of prophetic character, it stands apart as the one book in the New Testament that in its zeal to make its message heard, claims the inspiration of Scripture. It is thus in a real sense the nucleus of the New Testament collection.
The Revelation is not a loyal book. Its writer hates the Roman government and denounces its wickedness in persecuting the church in unmeasured terms which every Christian of the day must have understood. It does not indeed advise rebellion, but it is, from an official Roman point of view, a seditious and incendiary pamphlet. But so symbolic and enigmatical is its language that few outside of Jewish or Christian circles can have understood its meaning, or guessed that by Babylon the prophet meant the Roman Empire. Its value to the frightened and wavering Christians of Asia must have been great, for it promised them an early and complete deliverance, and cheered them to steadfastness and devotion. Their trial indeed proved less severe than they had feared, for twenty years later Ignatius found these same churches strong and earnest, and forty years after the writing of Revelation a Christian convert named Justin found this book still prized by the Ephesian church. Ignatius and Justin both suffered martyrdom in Rome, and joined the army of those who had come out of great tribulation, and had made their robes white in the blood of the Lamb. But in these successive conflicts, and through many more down to the present day, Christians have cheered themselves in persecution with the glowing promises and high-souled courage of the banished prophet of Ephesus, who in the face of hopeless defeat and destruction showed a faith that looked through death, and in stirring and immortal pictures assured his troubled brethren of the certain and glorious triumph of the Kingdom of God.