Persecution and the Book of Revelation

The majority of the early church assumed that the Book of Revelation was written when Domitian was persecuting the church. For example, Irenaues said that John wrote “nearly in our generation,” at the end of the reign of Domitian. In 1 Clement 1:1, written in A.D. 96, alludes to “the sudden and repeated calamities and reverses that have befallen us.” 1 Clement 4-7 contains several references which might be taken as either referring to the martyrdom of Peter and Paul or the present persecutions under Domitian.

S. R. F. Price argues the establishment of an imperial cult in Ephesus is the immediate background for Revelation 13 (Rituals and Power, 197-198). He draws parallels between Dan 3:12, 18 (LXX) and Rev 13:7-8, 14-15, 18 and concludes the writer of Revelation is drawing a connection between the refusal of the three young men to bow to the idol and the presence of an imperial cult in Asia Minor.  This is possible, but a serious allusion to Daniel 3 in Revelation 13 is less than obvious.

Since all of the sources which describe Domitian as a megalomaniac who demanded worship as a god date from after his reign, it can be argued the later sources are painting the old emperor in a negative light, and by contrast, ,making the current emperor Trajan appear as the better sovereign. DeSilva disagrees, arguing instead that “Domitian valued cultic language as an expression of social and political relationships.” This cultic language would have been imposed on the lower levels of society as a method of declaring loyalty to the state (“The ‘Image Of The Beast,’” TrinJ 12 [Fall 1991]: 199).  DeSilva does not argue for a systematic, empire-wide persecution, however.

On the other hand, there are a number of recent scholars who challenge the assumption of Roman persecution as a background for the book. For example, A. Y. Collins (Crisis and Catharsis, 69-73) argues the book is more about problems within the church, especially with Christians being drawn into pagan worship, rather than an organized and systematic persecution of Christian by the Empire. This is view has the advantage of taking the letters to the seven churches seriously (Rev 2-3). In these letters, the problems arise from within the church and not from Rome. The problems revolve around how the churches in Asia Minor integrate Christianity and pagan culture. If there is a persecution theme in Rev 2-3, it is the same fraternal debated between Jews and Christians we see as early as Galatians.

But these two views may not be opposed to each other.  The church is in fact experiencing “growing pains” as it moves further from its Jewish roots into the pagan, Gentile world.  We know this was true during Paul’s lifetime, it is no surprise to find that the next generation of Gentile Christians continued to struggle with how their new Christian faith integrated (or did not integrate) with their Greco-Roman world view.  But as the church grew, the Roman world began to notice it and they considered it to be a strange superstition.  Any new philosophy or religion was suspect in the Roman world and Christianity was attacked as a strange and pernicious cult whenever it was successful.  The persecution which is in the background in Revelation may not be anything specific, rather, Christians everywhere faced pressure to conform to the Roman ideal and potentially loss of property or life if they did not.

John is therefore projecting into the very near future when he believed imperial worship would be required. Christians who reject imperial worship will be persecuted and eventually killed for their stand against Rome.  The book of Revelation provides encouragement to Christians facing a very real threat to their lives because of their faith in Jesus as the Messiah.

16 thoughts on “Persecution and the Book of Revelation

  1. The thought that Revelation was written in a time when John might have been considering that all these things were going to happen in the near future is something that I really havent considered much. It proposes an interesting idea that all those believers really were expecting that Christ would return to the earth during their lifetime, aka soon. I don’t know that this really affected the way that they lived in that time, but I do know that it should affect the way that we live in this modern day and age. We should live in the mentality that Christ will return any day and even though we don’t know the time or place, we should still be prepared for it to happen anytime. That is one important thing that I feel many Christians do not recognize much. If we are living in the right mentality we will face persecution, but God is looking out for us and will also keep us on the right track as long as we allow him to.

  2. It seems that Revelation is written to address a very real problem surrounding the authorship date, yet, as is the case with many other books of the bible, the scripture written addresses many years to come and still applies today as something that will occur. Similarly with the book of Revelation (as P. Long stated) was written as an answer to a very real problem with the Romans and yet 2,000 years later we still use Revelation and the content it contains as means for future knowledge, and ultimately hope! This apocalyptic book brings many different meanings and confusing events into play, but I always have one question. Did John write what he saw in a way that would protect himself using this type of literature? Could he have interpreted some of the imagery he saw into what he thought it actually meant? Or did he use this literature type to somewhat conceal what he was referring to (such as the Roman government)? I must agree with Curtis in this fact that all of these concepts included are definitely new ideas for me.

  3. When I think about the book of Revelation, I think of the dragons and the strange creatures that are mentioned throughout it. I have never understood what is going on so I try to stay out of the discussion around it. However, it is encouraging to see that there may be a practical meaning out of the book. In his article L.J. Kreitzer said, “Some interpreters see it as absolutely indispensable, others as completely unusable” (56). In all honesty, in the past I have been someone who would be on the latter’s side. But in the blog P. Long said the purpose of Revelation may be to show encouragement to the Christians who were being persecuted for their faith. As I read through Revelation 2 and 3 it makes sense that John wanted to encourage them. Revelation 2:3 sounds a lot like a Pauline verse because it says, “you have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.” Later it goes on to say in verse 13, “I know where you live-where Satan has his throne. Yet you remain true to my name. You did not renounce your faith in me, even in the days of Antipas, my faithful witness, who was put to death in your city- where Satan lives. The only thing I would have to add to this is that I think Paul also was rebuking them in the areas that they weren’t doing the best at. I think the author wanted to give encouragement and praise but also I think and possibly more importantly they were being told to step it up in the areas in which they were failing.
    Curtis said that since they were expecting the return of Christ soon they should probably act like it. This is a great explanation for why the author included the areas where they should be growing. I too think that although the churches written about in chapters 2 and 3 didn’t live like Jesus was returning soon, they really should have been. I am glad to see that I have already found some application from the book that I was always so confused about.

  4. I can honestly say that I never thought of Revelation being written under the circumstances of all the things written happening in the near future during the time it was written. It is hard for me to believe that the hope of the future that we hold on to is also the hope of the future that many have held on to for two thousand years. Revelation to me is something that shows God’s wrath and really teaches me and other Christians to fear the Lord just as the bible says to do all throughout the bible. This is what gives us hope, hope to fear the Lord and hope of His return. I have always been taught to act as if we knew the return of the Lord was coming soon, therefor to live life in fear of the Lord but in awe of his greatness. Living everyday as if He was returning soon, maybe then reaching out to others so that they can know the Lord and be a part of his return. I fear that I have grown tired of this book because my brother spent most of my senior year and the summer following dissecting Revelation and telling me about everything he had encountered, but fortunately what I remember most from this book is from what I had learned in middle school from youth group; that this book is indeed about having hope in the Lord and fearing Him because of his greatness and his wrath.

  5. There’s no question Revelation was addressed to first-century Christians, begging them to remain true. John’s expectations hardly extended 2,000 years into the future. And given the many clues he provides, there’s little doubt he was watching the world fall apart. That’s what makes the book so doggone fascinating. But I believe a careful historical-critical reading of the text will still center it squarely in the first century–in fact, I date it to about the year 80 CE.

  6. Every time I read through the book of Revelation, I continue to be amazed at how much I continue to pick up and understand… as with the entire Bible. Revelation, as we have discussed in class, was written with many allusions to previous books of the Bible. As I become more and more learned in the scripture, I understand as to what the book of Revelation alludes to. It also continually amazes me that John was able to write so exactly what is to come. The book of Revelation contains so much imagery and unseen creatures, that it can make it hard to understand. Yet John was given the exact words to write. It is incredible all that is to come. I know that many other books have a more ‘soft’ approach, whereas Revelation is right in your face, as it should be. The end times, the tribulation, etc. are not pleasant things. It is about the coming end and destruction to those who have not put their faith and trust in the one and only Lord and Savior. To think that we are getting closer and closer to the end is a bit daunting, even though I know where I will be going. It is just very sad to think of all the nonbelievers and all that they will have to endure. Makes me thank the Lord even more for His free gift of salvation for all and any who will believe.

  7. I would have to agree with Curtis. The people back then had a thought that Jesus was going to come back sooner than they hoped. I do sometimes wonder when Christ will return and I am sure the people back then wondered that as well, but because we do not know there is no excuse to be lazy. If we all knew when the rapture would happen, we would be working so hard to evangelize to anybody we can just so that they can be saved like we are saved. But, like Curtis addressed, it is not something that we need to know, but we do need to know that there is not much time and we need to act now.

  8. I’ve read the book of Revelation many, many times and I still don’t understand exactly what it says. I always viewed it as a great mystery. People have done huge studies on Revelation and they still don’t fully understand it. I know that Revelation, along with Daniel, is where we get most of our views on the end times. Revelation holds many signs of the end times; false prophets, earthquakes, etc. For me, it is crazy to think that the people that this book was written to, looked forward to the same things that we look forward to today. They read Revelation and looked forward to these things happening in the near future. I wonder if they knew more about Revelation than we do today; if they understand it in a way that we can’t possibly understand today. Or, maybe they were just as confused as we are today. One thing is for certain, just as those people looked forward to these events sometime in the near future, so do we. We have no idea how near in the future this is coming. We don’t even know if it will happen in our lifetime. So, I say, it will happen when it happens.

  9. I have never studied the book of Revelation and I am very excited to dive into this book in class. I have always been afraid to study it because I have always thought it was too complicated with its massive amounts of allusions and imagery. While there are things that may be hard to understand, Revelation is an applicable book. It encourages and prompts Christians to live a life that will please God and to serve Him because you don’t know when He will return. It teaches us to live life with intent and urgency. It also provides encouragement for those under persecution or trial like Greg mentioned. Revelation urges us to not grow weary in the battle to do good. I am excited to better understand and grasp the meanings and applications of the book of Revelation in class. Revelation is interesting to me and in some aspects mysterious…because I have not studied it due to its complicated manner.

  10. The book of Revelation is considered one of the most popular and yet least understood books of the Bible. The use of imagery and allegory in the book gives rise to various interpretations by different scholars and theologians. There is no doubt, though, that John wrote the book for future generations of Christians, like us today. The persecution of Christians from Rome may have caused John’s exile, but it was not the main reason for the book. John knew that society was changing. Christianity was becoming a more separate religion for Gentiles and Jews alike. John knew that with the rise of a more gentile Christianity would come a rise in persecution of believers by the world. He wrote the book as an encouragement for believers by telling them what was going to happen when Jesus returned. His God spoken words are meant to give hope to believers who are persecuted, even today, for their beliefs by the world. There are parts of Revelation that are yet to be interpreted and understood, but there is no doubt of the reasoning for the book. Jesus is coming back to save and rule over the world and that is encouragement in itself to every believer of Jesus Christ

  11. I do not see how you can say there is no doubt John wrote the book for future generations. His audience is clearly specified, and the urgency in his tone is unmistakeable. Also, when read by his intended audience, it wasn’t much of a mystery. These people were experiencing the tribulation. But when we read it 2,000 years later, as if it relates to us, then naturally it’s terribly confusing!

    • I suppose your comment is aimed at the idea that Revelation *only* applies to a distant future time from John’s perspective. I think my final comment above says that John was speaking about his own immediate future, when Roman persecution became more difficult to endure. I am, however, committed to the idea that John’s prophecy has a “future-to-us”
      dimension, much the way Isaiah’s prophecy of Emmanuel had application to his own day in 8th century BC and to the coming of the Messiah 800 years later.

      I would say that your final line is always going to be troublesome when reading the Bible, since none of it was addressed to us specifically, yet we always seem to read books like Proverbs or 1 Corinthians as if they relate and apply to us. The point you ought to make is that Revelation is not being fulfilled in historical or contemporary events,but the theological teaching of the book is certainly applicable.

      In my view, reading Revelation correctly is not confusing. But defining *how* to read Revelation is quite controversial. I will have a few posts about this over the next two weeks. Thanks for your insights.

  12. Sorry, Phillip, I was replying to zmccord. I am in agreement with you that John was looking forward to the very near future. I also feel it’s evident that John (and his audience) had already experienced much of the tribulation he was writing about. I look forward to your posts!

    If you back Revelation up and recognize that they had endured great tribulation in the war of 70 CE, then there’s no need to worry about whether or not Domitian was persecuting Christians. Indeed, contrary to many, I fail to see how Revelation has much of anything to do with Domitian.

  13. Persecution has been around for a long time. I think when it comes down to persecution depends on position of what an individual is fighting for. The Bible gives us a clear understanding that while we are with Christ Jesus, for his name sake we shall be persecute based on our faith in him. In Matthew 5:10 says about those who persecuted for righteousness will inherit the kingdom of heaven. In 2 Timothy 3:12 speaks about a godly life in Christ Jesus, they too will be persecuted. In John 15:18 reminds us that the world will hate us, though the world hated Jesus first. It is true the book of Revelation not only gives us warning of what is to come, and the glory of Christ Jesus coming back, it is also gives us hope and to pursue the race towards eternal life. I think the doctrine of truth has been under attack for a long time. What I mean, is the Word of God has suffered violent from both spiritual and physical realms. Humans are always finding ways to destroy God’s Word, Satan and demons have been in the business of counterfeit the truth with lies and deception. It is one’s faith and believing through Christ Jesus who will be firm and stable to face all sorts of persecution now and the future.

  14. From the very start of Christianity, there have always been persecution whether that was through Saul seeking to destroy believers or Nero blaming the Christians for the fires. Yet in Revelation, the author mentions that his readers have been enduring persecution probably during Domitian’s reign. As Professor Long points out, there appears to be an analogy of the three men in Daniel refusing to worship the idol to the cult in Asia Minor. If Domitian was emperor when Revelation was written, that meant he required everyone to worship him. Yet believers in Christ would not do that because they worshipped the one True God. Yet one could argue that this persecution was internal in their churches with the integration of both Jews and Gentile believers as they started down a new path that was separate from their old ways. Not only that, but the church would have been persecuted just by being different. Nevertheless, it appears that the church was being persecuted whether it was by the emperors, society, or internally.

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