Revelation as Resistance Literature

Despite the fact the book of Revelation is usually mined for what it has to say about future events, it is not a “roadmap for the future.” It is, rather, an exhortation written to very real churches to encourage them to live a different kind of life in the shadow of the Second Coming. This life means enduring persecution for their belief in Jesus and their non-belief in an imperial system that was becoming increasingly hostile to that faith. In Revelation the church is called to resist the culture, not through underground military action, but by being faithful witnesses to Jesus despite persecution.

There are many examples of this in Revelation, but I will offer one from the letter to Pergamum (Rev 2:12-17). In Rev 2:13 the church is commended for not renouncing their faith even though one faithful witness was put to death.  The city is described as the place where Satan has his throne (v. 13) and “where Satan lives” (v. 14). There are several suggestions for what is meant by “Satan’s Throne” (in fact, David Aune lists eight major possibilities). The Temple of Zeus Soter overlooked the city, and this throne was well known in the ancient world. On the other hand, this may refer to the Imperial cult represented by two temples to emperors Augustus and (later) to Trajan.

In support of this view, it is observed that the term “throne” is used as an “official seat or chair of state” in the New Testament, Pergamum was the center of Satan’s activities in the province of Asia much the way Rome becomes the center for Satan’s activities in the west. The Temple of Augustus in Pergamum was built in 29 B.C., and was the first of the imperial cults in Asia Minor.  In TJob 3:5b pagan temples are called “the temple of Satan.”

Antipas of PergamumEven though the imperial cult is strong in their city, the church of Pergamum remains true to the Lord’s name, even to the point of death. Nothing is known from scripture about the martyr Antipas, which is a shortened form of Antipater.  The title given him is “faithful witness,” title given to Jesus in Revelation 1. Eventually Pergamum will become known for several important martyrs.  The fact that the city was the center of the imperial cult would make the Christian refusal to accept the cult a serious crime.

There is a principle running through several of the letters in Rev 2-3 that the witnessing church will be a persecuted church (Beale, Revelation, 427).  Since the church has had a reputation for being a strong witness in the community, the church has had to face persecution, perhaps in the form of financial hardship and other social complications; but more importantly, members of their community have been killed for their faith.

Let me draw this back to the application of Revelation to the present church. How should the modern church “resist” the culture of this world? In western, “first world” countries this would look different than in some parts of Africa or Asia where the church is illegal and being persecuted for their faith. It is possible that the lack of persecution in the west is an indication that we have embraced culture and are no longer “faithful witnesses” like Antipas?

10 thoughts on “Revelation as Resistance Literature

  1. Although today’s modern Western Church may not face the physical persecutions of the underground churches in Asia or Africa – postmodern thought has permeated several threats to today’s church. For example, the inability to speak out against gay marriage because it could be considered a hate crime is a battle the modern church must deal with. What happens when a pastor is imprisoned for committing such a hate crime? How will church members react to that? What about the sanctity of human life? Churches who stand against the pro-choice movement are often heavily scrutinized and judged by outspoken liberal groups. Although the Western Church may not face physical persecutions, I believe government sanctions and pressure from political groups definitely impact how Churches are viewed and treated in today’s modern society.

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  2. It is quite possible that the lack of persecution in the west is an indication that we have embraced culture and are no longer “faithful witnesses” like Antipas? This is something we have discussed in other classes. Christianity in America is often a diversion from the faith. American Christianity has embraced the American culture and developed non-Biblical theologies, such as America being God’s nation. Because of thoughts like this, Christians in America often hold tightly to three things: God, Country, and family. In reality, this is a form of worship and idolatry of our country. In order to be faithful witnesses like Antipas we need to resist our culture and not back down from our faith in fear of angering our culture.

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  3. Jon said that even though we aren’t facing persecution directly from the government doesn’t mean that the Church is not under persecution. His point about not being able to speak freely on the topics of homosexuals, and other social topics that would make us politicly incorrect, to me, is a form of persecution. Taking Jon’s point even further. We see that the Church isn’t necessarily growing. Even worse I believe people are leaving the Church in todays society faster and at a greater rate then it has ever been. Not because of the physical persecution from the Church but because the Church isn’t being persecuted by the government and is causing Christians to live a lukewarm faith and ultimately a nonexistent faith. To me this is one of the biggest persecutions of the faith that has ever taken place. Not in the numbers of people who have died for their faith but in the number of how many peoples faith has died.

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  4. There are a lot of ways Christians (of various theological persuasions) can and do support and further “Empire” (which is broader than just formal governments) over against the Kingdom of God. No clear-cut guidelines… it calls forth our individual and communities’ best observations and efforts to apply the teachings and example of Jesus. And how/when to take stands against what governments, corporations, etc. are doing. One important clue: though same-sex marriage is important to people on both “sides” of the issue, it is not at all at the core of what most needs attending.

    The writers I’ve found most informative and inspiring on this theme are, incidentally, not within the “conservative” or evangelical fold, which generally endorses whatever American gov’t is doing in relation to ungodly empire-building. Rather they are people like Frank Schaeffer, some of the liberation theologians, Joerg Rieiger, Dominic Crossan, Richard Horsley, Burton Mack, etc.

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    • I just bought Horsely’s The Prophet Jesus and the Renewal of Israel. I have always enjoyed his work, Crossan as well although he has morphed into several different things over the years.

      I think the popular “empire studies” are going the right direction, although not being a Marxist I find them a bit beyond me politically. To me, Revelation is the best example we have of a flat out anti-Empire text, and that ought to be explored more – application of that anti-empire theme will vary depending on your political assumptions prior to reading the text. While many of these types of studies are quite left on the American political spectrum, I think there could be some far right wingers out there who could do the same sort anti-government work. I suppose the difference is that the right-wingers are not known for participating in scholarship.

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      • I haven’t read that one by Horsely. I hope you’ll be reviewing it here. (I do get emails of new posts… please have book title and/or author in your title so I won’t pass over it.) I’m just getting into Joerg Rieger’s “Christ and Empire” (starting with early ch., not historical Jesus). I was quite impressed with him, both scholarly and personally, having heard and met him just 2 wks. ago at the TransFORM 2014 conf. in San Diego (responded to on my blog and a great article of response on Kathy Escobar’s). I can’t yet tell just where his personal politics may lie (obviously NOT right-wing), nor his overall theology (undoubtedly pretty progressive). He’s at Perkins within SMU, as you may know.

        As to conservative scholarship and thoughtful anti-empire stances, I have to agree that they are almost completely lacking. I keep trying to learn from my ideological “opposites” (not fully so, but for simplicity sake) but the truly deep and consistent conservatives are very few (speaking of political/economic theory here) … maybe George Will (usually), David Brooks (NYT, NPR) and a small handful of others. But there is almost nothing to be learned or even challenged by in all the talkers of the Limbaugh/Hannity/Beck, etc. type on radio. All very predictable (and misleading for who they themselves call the “under-informed” voter… much more THEIR audience than, say, NPR’s).

        That being said, I’m far from Marxist myself… no illusions about either communism or pure socialism (which probably doesn’t exist, to my knowledge). I haven’t kept up with liberation theology for 20 years or so, but I don’t think such thinkers/leaders are Marxist to any major extent either (and certainly not the Pope… I imagine even Limbaugh knows that, despite his throwing out the connection for shock value).
        People tend to be operating with these outdated concepts of some “pure” form of either capitalism, communism or socialism… when the reality is all kinds of hybrids that work in varying degrees, and none of which is near perfect (nor can be, in my view).

        But when typical Americans read Latin American Liberation theology, they fail to (or are unable to) read it within its Latin context, and thus superimpose lots of extraneous stuff, further failing to understand it. Or they forget that the real origins of the thinking is more European (e.g., Moltmann) than Latin, but certainly fleshed out as thoroughly Latin (or other).

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    • Great!

      And get this: Just before reading this response or yours, I’d gone back where I left off in “Christ and Empire” for a quick read (if I said where, it would be TMI). The first couple sentences are spot on re. your Rev. material and our discussion: “We can now see more clearly that in this world the realms of politics, economics, culture, and religion, which are routinely separated in modern scholarship, all flow into each other. It is not possible to separate religion and politics or religion and economics, and sometimes even the modern analytical habit of making distinctions seems impossible. If the ethos of the Roman Empire thus includes all of life–this is one of the basic marks of empire throughout history–the emperor cult cannot simply be regarded as a secondary ‘superstructure.'”…

      This you already know, I’m sure… but I include it for those new to this kind of exploration…. and an interesting synchronicity (something my Evangelical friends call a “God thing” and I’m cool with that language).

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  5. I think that in order for us to resist the culture of this world, we should learn to really stand firm in our faith. We as Christians are called into the world to teach the Gospel. But we aren’t meant to just teach them to children or too the old, we need to get down in the dirty parts of the world to reach the Gospel, Jesus did it. Yes, it’s true that we don’t face persecution like those in Africa or Asia, but I don’t think that this or the fact that we get into our culture more, is something that keeps us from being faithful witnesses.

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