Over the last few posts on Revelation 13 I have argued the two beasts apply the imagery of the four empires in Daniel 7 to the Roman Empire. Both depict a final empire led by an arrogant ruler who demands worship as a god. In Daniel, that is Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 3) and the arrogant little horn, undoubtedly the Seleucid Antiochus IV Epiphanes who persecuted the Jewish people leading to the Maccabean Revolt. In Revelation, John’s first beast is led by a parody of Jesus Christ who demands worship from the whole world and is supported by wondrous signs performed by the second beast. Setting aside the exact identification of the blasphemous horn in Revelation 13:1-4 (Caligula, Nero, or Domitian), John certainly is equating the final empire in Daniel to Rome.
In both cases, the empire persecutes the people of God who refuse to worship the empire. Shadrach, Meschach and Abednego are sentenced to death in the fiery furnace; Daniel is sentenced to death in the Lion’s Den. In Revelation 13, the first beast wages war on God’s people. Some of those who refused to worship the beast or take his mark were beheaded. They are raised from the dead and reign with Christ for 1000 years (Rev 20:4-5). John says they were beheaded on account of their testimony, or witness for Jesus and for the Word of God. Earlier in the book John refers to Antipas of Pergamum as a “faithful witness” who did not deny his faith and was killed as a result. The letters to the seven churches indicate some Christians were already suffering and some were killed because of their refusal to worship the empire.
John is doing a kind of prophetic exegesis. He reads Daniel in the light of current events and highlights certain similarities between Daniel’s view of the empires and Rome. This is not unusual. There are many examples of Exodus language used in this way in the Old Testament. Many scholars consider Isaiah 40-55 calling for a new Exodus, this time out of Babylon at the end of the exile. It has become quite popular to describe the Gospel of Mark as presenting Jesus’s ministry as a kind of New Exodus. The seven trumpets re-used the plagues to describe judgment on the world (Rev 8-9).
But John also has imperial propaganda in mind. Like any political power, the Roman Empire used propaganda to create a narrative about itself in order to maintain control over a massive territory. The art and architecture of the Roman world told the story of a great world empire which brought peace and prosperity to the world. Even the coins used by everyone in the marketplace declared the emperor as a divine son of God or associated the emperor with a god. One could not enter a city in the Roman world without being overwhelmed with the awesome power of Rome. That Rome is the beast in Revelation is clear. Perhaps this is veiled in chapter 13, but by Revelation 17 it will be obvious John is describing the empire as a great whore drunk on the blood of the saints.
In Pergamum there is an inscription which illustrates Roman imperial propaganda. It is after the book of Revelation was written, but it is a remarkable background for Revelation 13. Pergamum had a massive imperial cult center. It is possible there was a temple on the acropolis dedicated to earlier emperors, but the one excavated and restored for tourists today is dedicated to Trajan. This inscription begins with the word, αὐτοκρᾰ́τωρα and is followed by a series of imperial relationships (son of Nerva, divine Caesar). The third line begins with Τραϊανὸς, Trajan, the one worthy of worship, σεβαστός. σεβαστός is the title given to Augustus. The fourth line has two of Trajan’s titles, Γερμανικός (conferred in AD 97 before he became emperor) and Δᾱκία refers to his conquest over Dakia, a region in eastern Europe; the title was given to him in AD 101-102.
The fifth and sixth lines declare “of the earth and the sea, Lord.” The “earth and sea” is to say, the whole world. Revelation 13 has a beast from the sea and earth. Notice κύριος is on the sixth line by itself, emphasizing the claim that Trajan is the Lord of the whole world. This inscription declares Trajan is the son of the divine rulers of Rome and conqueror of Rome’s enemies, the lord of the whole world. It is placed in a massive temple dedicated to the worship of Rome and the emperor. This is not some graffiti scratched on a wall in an obscure location, this inscription was placed in a prominent location to be seen by people as they honored the empire.
How would a Jewish person react to this inscription claiming that Trajan is the Lord? Who might a Christian react to the assertion a human emperor is the Lord of the whole world? At the beginning of Revelation, God declares himself to be the Lord, the almighty (παντοκράτωρ, 1:8). In Revelation 4:8 the angelic creatures worship the one seated on the throne day and night saying “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty” (κύριος ὁ θεὸς ὁ παντοκράτωρ, 4:8, cf. 11:17, 15:3, 16:7, 19:6, 21:22). God is the Lord of all the earth (τοῦ κυρίου τῆς γῆς, 11:4). Revelation 17:14 declares the Lamb will overcome the beast because he is the “Lord of lords and King of kings” (cf. 19:16).
Any Christian hearing this kind of propaganda would be forced to make a choice. Could they bow their head and appear to honor Rome while silently praying to Jesus? Would that kind of compromise endanger their faith? In the case of Daniel, he was willing to die rather than worship the empire. That is the case for the faithful witnesses in Revelation as well.
This is a problem all Christians must face at some point. Modern governments still used propaganda to promote a narrative, and they are just as likely to demand worship (although we call it patriotic loyalty now). How can Christians today (in what ever country they live) maintain their faith and not worship the empire?