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?

The Roman Cult of Emperor Worship

Many scholars see worship of the emperor as the background for the worship of the Beast in Revelation 13:4, 15-16; 14:9-11, 15:2, 16:2, 19:20, 20:4.  If this is true, then we need to know when emperor worship became an empire-wide phenomenon.  The standard view of Emperor worship found in many popular commentaries comes from William Ramsay, writing at the turn of the 20th century:

“…in no part of the world was there such fervent and sincere loyalty to the emperors as in Asia. Augustus had been a saviour to the Asian peoples, and they deified him as the Saviour of mankind, and worshiped him with the most whole-hearted devotion as the ‘present deity’.” W. Ramsay, The Letters to the Seven Churches (New York: Hodder & Stoughton, 1909) 115.

Julius Caesar allowed himself to be worshiped as a god, but his successor Augustus only allowed emperor worship outside of the city of Rome.  Augustus is known in some inscriptions  as  CAESAR DIVI FILIUS, Son of God, that is, Son of eternal Caesar.  Oaths were taken on the divine spirit of the emperor. His image was publicly adored. Worship of the image was a regular military duty.   Caligula was the first emperor to demand to be worshiped, he demanded that citizens everywhere bow to his statue.  Nero also claimed to be divine, although in neither case was there a requirement to worship the emperor.  As Augustus had been Zeus incarnate, so Nero was Apollo incarnate. Even Seneca called him as the long-awaited savior of the world.

Domitian took the title “lord and god” and ordered people to confess he was “lord and god” as a test of loyalty (Suetonius, The Lives of the Caesars, Book 8: Domitian 13).  Marital says the “beasts in the arena” hailed him as a god.  While this is clearly legendary, it does reflect a contemporary writer implying divine honors for Domitian.  Dio Cassius (Roman History 67.14)refers to Domition exiling a Flavius Clemens and his wife, Flavia Domitilla for “atheism.”  Atheism is the charge made against those who drifted into “things Jewish.” Dio Chrysostom reported that Domitan liked to “be flattered” as “master and god.”  Those who refused to flatter him in this way risked trouble. (In Oratorio 45:1, see also First Discourse on Kingship, 1.14-15).

How prevalent was the imperial cult in Asia Minor?  Of the seven cities mentioned in Revelation 2-3, five have imperial priests and altars (all but Philadelphia and Laodica) and six have imperial temples (all but Thyatira).  At Pergamum an imperial temple was established as early as 28 B.C.  The city was so central to the imperial cult that Revelation describes this city as having the “throne of Satan.”  In short, a Christian in Asia Minor could not avoid the Imperial Cult.

It was during the reign of Domitian when the imperial cult became a factor in unifying the empire in Asia Minor.  The provincial cult allowed the Roman network of social obligations to be extended to virtually the whole population.  If you lived within the empire, then you were a social client of the Emperor and owed him supreme allegiance.  It is not hard to see, therefore, the struggle which Christians in the late first century would have showing allegiance to Rome – if that allegiance required worship of the Emperor, then the Christian must refuse or compromise their faith.

Some Bibliography:

Ethelbert  Stauffer, Christ and the Caesars. Translated by K. and R. Gregor Smith. (Philadelphia: The Westminster, 1955).

David A. deSilva, “The ‘Image Of The Beast’ And The Christians In Asia Minor: Escalation Of Sectarian Tension In Revelation 13” TrinJ 12:2 (Fall 1991) 185-208.