Revelation and Empire

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.

View_of_ancient_PergamonThere 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.”

Even 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.

Apple-CapitalismLet 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?

How would this “resist the culture” theology play out in modern American Christianity? It seems to me evangelicals have seized on some social issues and ignored others. Recently, resisting and protesting changes in same-sex marriage laws are the only place it appears Christians resist culture–but what about rampant consumerism or American exceptionalism? How do we adopt Revelation’s theology of resistance on a wider range of issues?

14 thoughts on “Revelation and Empire

  1. As to your ending questions, “Preach it, brother”! You know, I raised and as a young adult was “right of center” politically. Only gradually came to see Christian faith as bearing seriously on governing issues and social organization, etc. Even while still squarely in the Evangelical camp theologically, I felt compelled to seek the application of NT teachings to the public arena, including politics. It gradually moved me “left” (not real far, mind you, though today even Sanders I have no “socialism” fears of).

    I hope your gentle prods are taken seriously. There is both room for and a big NEED of youthful and older Christians to both think through and dialog extensively on the nexus of theology and political theory, AND its expression in specific office holders (from local on up, not just POTUS or US Senators/Reps). But as to POTUS, of the 5 main candidates in the race, 3 have firm faith commitments and long involvement. Hillary’s philosophy of theology-and-governance is fairly evident I think. On the other end of the spectrum, Ted Cruz’s one can only infer. Whether from him or a similar strong “limited gov’t” person (perhaps a leading pastor or TV personality or radio hose), I’d sure love to see some vision laid out and leadership shown for how a large, multi-state, diverse population (USA) can be effectively provided a “safety net” by the Church and NGO’s alone (while shrinking the federal and/or state level programs).

    When Church and “State” effectively merged, about 3-4 centuries after Revelation was written, the RC Church took this on in one sense, and more so after Rome’s Empire crumbled in the mid 400s to 500s. Not sure they could or did do it very effectively.

    Seems we here (as in Europe and elsewhere) have a tremendous potential to create an effective partnership that could fulfill social needs and help Xn’s fulfill that aspect of Jesus’ call. I think George W. Bush had some vision re. this and may have taken a good direction tho it has not developed effectively further, for complex reasons. This need/potential is ONE good reason (among many) that Christians should be LEADING the effort to reduce the acrimony and heated rhetoric these days (especially from the “right”, to which the “left” responds more than in the other direction. I.e., more progressive people are usually less “in your face” unless/until provoked).

    A related point: Empire-building (to stand against) is more about trying to influence or control other peoples or regions and less about legitimate social services at home (even “social justice” – which is NOT mere [evil] “progressivism”, despite what Glenn Beck, et al may claim).

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  2. Chuckle: Since I can’t edit my comment, I’ll note I just spotted what may be “Freudian”: Radio “hose” should be radio “host” in above comment!

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  3. Modern American Christianity has much to learn from the persecuted church. While we enjoy freedom to worship when and wherever we wish, there are Christians around the world who risk their lives daily because of their faith. Voice of the Martyrs has an intense ministry in providing prayer and financial resources for those who are imprisoned or have lost a loved one for practicing the Christian faith. Simply following their posted prayer requests can be life-changing for a Christian living in the comfort of the Western World.
    Emperor worship and the Imperial Cult could not be avoided by the believers in Pergamum. Citizens were to take oaths in the emperor’s name, to worship an emperor’s image or bow to his statue, or to acknowledge the emperor as god. Showing allegiance to Rome meant compromising their faith in God.
    Most Americans have not faced any serious threat because of our faith. We may be teased, we may lose a friend or two, we might feel left out at times, but unless we loudly protest social or cultural issues, we’re pretty much left alone about our faith. Is this because we’re doing the same thing? Leaving others alone, leaving our faith out of things? We must be careful not to become like the people of Israel in Jeremiah 6:15–“Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush. So they will fall among the fallen; they will be brought down when I punish them,” says the Lord.

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    • I would agree with you I think that the fact that you say we can learn a lot from the persecuted Christians of the world is completely accurate. Their faith is much stronger I feel than a lot of Americans because we are so used to having free reign to worship that I feel we slip into a comfort zone almost with our faith even though it is strong. I appreciate what you say about the persecuted church and how strong their faith is because its extremely commendable. I think we could all learn a lesson from those in the persecuted church to apply to our life.

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  4. Your last statement about Christians protesting certain issues and ignoring other issues is something I’ve been thinking about for a while now, and I’m glad to see others are thinking the same way. Consumerism, I would agree is almost a invisible issue, I think people think that if they go and volunteer once a month that makes up for the things they waste their money on, or the fact that people have money to go out and spend freely, but they aren’t willing to cough up even a small sum for offering. I’ll admit that I do spend more money than I probably should, I go to a lot of shows and enjoy eating out; This post has convicted me in my own life and what issues I am focusing on too much. I think when it comes to the issue of Homosexuality and other Gender and Sexuality issues, such as non-binary identify people, gender fluidity, and Transgender rights, is that action speak louder than words. We are called to love and follow by example of Christ, all of these are really touchy issues, but I think it might be more beneficial for Christians to focus on issues that are rampant in the church such as consumerism and porn, and once those issues are calmed we can focus on issues in the secular word, I just feel like the Church needs some damage control before we can be taken seriously.

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  5. I think it is also important to not that while looking at the topic of what should we as Christians resist, that we do not fall into the temptation of hate. So often Christians in the media are portrayed as hateful, judgmental people for the way they come against homosexuality, which saddens me. I honestly believe there are better ways to resist the culture we live in than to spew hate and judgement. We are to be beacons of light, not the judge of our fellow humans. That being said, we are so hypocritical in the resistance. I know people who are disgusted by homosexuality, but are totally in debt with credit cards and bad finances. Is one worse than the other? As it says in Romans 13:8 “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law.” I feel as though Christians so often choose the issues they want to condemn instead of focusing inwards on the issues they need to fix in their own lives.

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  6. American Christians are clearly among the least persecuted groups in history. At worst, we risk ridicule and shame from people who aren’t Christians. While I think that there are definitely cultural things that the church has accepted, I’m not necessarily ready to attribute our lack of persecution solely on the fact that we have accepted cultural things. I think a big part of this is the fact that the US was created as a “Christian” nation, and that the founding fathers of our nation placed a great emphasis on avoiding the religious persecution they faced. However, if it is indeed persecution that serves to strengthen our faith, I think this lack of persecution has served to a large number of spiritually shallow “Christians”. Without the persecution, there is nothing to separate the casual Christian from the devout Christian. I think this has lead to our hesitance to speak out on major issues. Many American Christians simply don’t have strong enough faith to be convicted and willing to speak out. This is one reason I feel so strongly about youth ministry and its importance for the church. In order to begin to enact genuine change, we need to instill passion and courage in the generations of Christians coming up to take our place.

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  7. There are a lot of rules in the Bible that the current Christian ignores nowadays. The two largest examples that I can think of is divorce and gluttony. Matthew 5:32 clearly states that those who divorce and remarry will be victims of adultery. Proverbs denote many cautions against gluttony such as Proverbs 3:19; 23 and 25:16. We are also taught not to conform to the world as said in Romans 12:2. I think that there can be a slight push back here when regarding current cultural norms and evangelism. If I were to walk up to someone’s house in a long robe and sandals, they would never let me (unless it was to call the mental hospital). This is a somewhat extreme example of a simple mistake evangelists do every day. We pride ourselves so highly in being apart from the world but we do not know how to effectively talk to the people who need God.

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    • I really like what you said here. I feel like there is a thin line in between being friends with the world and trying to fit in with the culture to reach people. I have heard churches state that they will do anything short of sin to reach those who do not know the gospel. I think that this is a great statement, as they are willing to be on the same levels as those they are trying to reach. Often Christians get stuck in the “Christian culture” and do not want to “lower” ourselves to reach people. We try to bring others up to our standards. Often we forget that we once were just like them. However, Christians need to protect themselves from temptations when trying to reach others. We need to be careful to not dishonor or disobey God, but be willing to get out of our comfort zone to reach others.

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  8. We can “fight the power” by accepting the responsibility inherent in the White Privilege we have. We can fight the power by accepting pay cuts instead of fighting for money that is “our right.” We can fight the power by confessing sin.

    Amen. Thanks for posting this spot on article.

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  9. You bring up a really good point about homosexuality being the only topic that Christians really take a countercultural stance upon. However is that stand because of Christianity or the Conservative background many Americans have been born into? On a different note, I believe Christians can fall victim to “Empire worship” in a few different way. One way is by relying so heavily upon a leader and his “God-ordained” authority that any faults made by him can be excused and that the fate of the country does not rest in God’s but in this leader’s agenda. Another way is idolizing the media. Now, do not et me wrong. I absolutely love watching football and other sports on TV, however, it becomes a problem when we place more time and energy into those things than we do God. You could literally replace “media” with any other thing besides God and my point would be valid. Maybe North American Christians are too accepting of the things society has to offer and that is why persecution is few and far between. That could be a factor, however, so could government regulations and homeland security.

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    • Ethan,

      You make an interesting point here and I would agree with you. Americans today have put media on such a pedestal it is like we are worshiping sports like football more then we actually worship God. That right there is not right at all and should not be the case. We all need to do better in making more time during the day and give more time to God, no matter how it is we decide to do so.

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  10. I think that since we, in the United States, are not facing the kind of persecution that other Christians in the world are facing and experiencing does not necessarily mean that we have embraced culture. I think that there may be some truth, that we may have embraced culture in some areas more so than others. The culture today in America is a very accepting, yet offended society. They are very accepting of people and who they identify as, but as soon as someone comes along and says that an individuals’ thoughts or ideas are wrong, they become offended. Because of this, we keep our beliefs and thoughts to ourselves as not to ‘offend’ anyone. I do think that we experience persecution but in a way smaller and different way than those around the world. Instead of dying for our faith or being beaten, we become shunned or are looked down upon because of our faith. I completely agree that some cultural issues are ignored while others may seem over analyzed or talked about. I wonder what it is that makes one thing worth talking about, while another is not viewed as important? Could it be because the Bible may talk about one thing more than the other?

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