Revelation is unique; there is no other book like it in the Bible. In terms of a music metaphor, John has created, by the Holy Spirit, a new kind of music to sing his song. It is distinctive because we see that John combines three kinds of literature that were popular in his day to communicate what he saw and heard. Separately, the three were well known. Putting them together, however, John wrote a book with a new composite style. I believe that the people who received the book would have recognized what John was doing. Furthermore, not only was such a combination appropriate from a literary perspective, but we will also see that the strategy was especially fitting for the pastoral purpose of the book.
In recent decades, numerous scholars have suggested that a comparison between Revelation 1:1ff and Rev. 22:6ff supports the view that the book is the work of a person whose background is a blend of diverse cultures or traditions work. Specifically, it contains prophetic, apocalyptic, and letter-like (or epistolary) features.
That Revelation is part–apocalypse is supported by Revelation 1:1, which opens the book with the declaration “the revelation [or apocalypse] of Jesus Christ” (see also Rev. 22:6, 8). The book’s prophetic nature is emphasized in Rev. 1:3 where John refers to the one who reads and those who hear “the words of this prophecy” (see also Rev. 22:6, 7b, 9, 10, 18–19). Finally, the book begins (Rev. 1:4–6) like a letter: “John, To the seven churches in the province of Asia: Grace and peace to you” and ends (Rev. 22:21) in a way similar to other New Testament letters: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen” (see also 1 Cor. 16:23; Gal. 6:18; Phil. 4:23). In addition, chapters 2 and 3 are written expressly to the seven churches.
More precisely, I believe that John’s writing should be viewed as a Christian prophetic–apocalyptic–circular letter. Such a description needs to be evaluated and its importance for interpretation highlighted. Revelation is, above all, a Christian work. It was written by a follower of Jesus, the apostle John, to followers of Jesus living in Asia Minor. Virtually every major section says something about Jesus and his church.
A Christian Prophecy
John clearly identifies his work as a prophecy (Rev. 1:3; see also Rev. 22:7b, 10, 18–19; Rev. 19:10), and he is viewed as a prophet (Rev. 22:9; see also Rev. 10:7, 11; Rev. 22:6). But in what sense is Revelation prophetic? Unfortunately, it is far too common for Christians to focus almost exclusively on the predictive nature of prophecy. They assert that prophets predict the future and that their predictions are found in their sermons and writings.
However, countless scholars have demonstrated that the dominant emphasis in the prophetic writings is not on predicting the future but on proclaiming God’s will. A simple way of putting it is that in prophetic writings there is both foretelling and forth–telling.
“Foretelling” emphasizes the predictive nature of prophecy, and “forth–telling” stresses the prophet’s goal to set forth the Word and will of God. Contrary to popular opinion, the emphasis is on the latter in which prophets set forth God’s desires. A prophet proclaims both what God intends to do and what God intends for his people to do in light of the future.
Indeed, this forth–telling emphasis with its call to obedience is the note that John sounds in the very first place where he identifies his work as a prophetic one: “Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near” (Rev. 1:3). Unfortunately, The New International Version’s rendering of (Rev. 1:3) obscures this emphasis. The phrase “take to heart” should be translated “obeys” or “heeds.” In every other place where the Greek term appears focusing on a person’s duty, the NIV translators emphasize the call to obedience (Rev. 2:26; 3:3, 8, 10; 12:17; Rev. 14:12; Rev. 22:7, 9; see also Rev. 16:15 which implies obedience). Why they did not do so in 1:3 is a mystery. Prophecy is to be obeyed. It is true that John provides scenes of the future (e.g., the destruction of evil kingdoms, the Final Judgment of the righteous and the unbelievers, the establishment of the new heaven and new earth, and so forth), but the future–oriented passages are meant to challenge the people of God to be an obedient people until he comes or until they die.
Revelation is prophetic in both character and intention. John the prophet viewed his task as involving the presentation of the Word and will of God to the people of God in a particular place at a particular time. The inspired prophetic perspective that he was given resulted in a book that helped its recipients penetrate the eternal issues behind the crisis of his day (Rev. 1:9; Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29; Rev. 3:6, 13, 22; Rev. 17:3; Rev. 21:10). Like his Old Testament predecessors (e.g., Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, and others), John revealed to God’s people their duties to be carried out in tough times, and he assured them that God’s purposes would be fulfilled.
A Christian Apocalypse
The first word in the Greek text of John’s work is translated “revelation” or “apocalypse” (Rev. 1:1) which means “an unveiling” or “a disclosure.” The term describes the contents of the work; it is filled with visions and auditions (see also Rev. 22:8 where John testifies that he is “the one who heard and saw these things”).
Moreover, these apocalyptic works spoke words of comfort and challenge as God’s people faced suffering and defeat. Their authors wrestled with such profound questions as: Why do God’s people suffer at the hands of wicked people? Does God really care? Will the faithful ever be vindicated? How should God’s people behave until judgment comes?
To guide Christian readers attempting to live out their faithfulness in a hostile world, apocalyptic authors present answers to such questions in symbolic language. In order to speak about the deeper spiritual realities in the battle between good and evil, they communicated through these symbols that literally permeate the apocalypses. It was a language that would have been understood by the faithful.
John is fond of metaphors (Rev. 1:17–18; Rev. 5:5; and so forth), “a figure of speech in which an aspect of one thing is pointed out by implicitly comparing it with something else or by simply identifying it as the thing to which it is being compared.”
Similes are found throughout the book as well (Rev. 1:15; Rev. 21:18; and so forth). A simile is “a comparison of two basically unlike things, frequently using the word like or as.”
We are not certain, however, whether unbelievers would have been able to understand the works. Through the use of symbolic language, authors like John proclaimed that God would have the final word: The faithful will be rescued and rewarded and judgment will be carried out against all evil powers and those who have been their allies, people included.
It appears that, primarily through the use of metaphors and symbols, the authors of apocalypses addressed the realities of the struggle of God’s people.
A Christian Circular Letter
Finally, Revelation should be viewed as a “circular letter.” The letters found in the New Testament were written messages sent to people because the author could not deliver the message in person. In fact, the seven churches form a large circular pattern, like a delivery circuit, when viewed on a map in the order presented in Revelation 2 and 3, starting from and returning to Ephesus.
John begins and ends Revelation like other letters (Rev. 1:4ff; 22:21). The body of the document would include the prophetic–apocalyptic sections (Rev. 1:9–22:7). It was a letter to be read during an assembly of believers (Rev. 1:3; see also Acts 15:30–31; 1 Thess. 5:27; Col. 4:16). In addition, it was a letter meant to circulate among several congregations (Rev. 1:4, 11; see also 2:1–3:21; see also Col. 4:16; James 1:1; 1 Pet. 1:1).
If Revelation is a circular letter, then John’s role as a type of pastor to the seven churches is especially highlighted. He was aware of their circumstances, and he desired to provide the watchful and responsible care they needed if they were to remain loyal to Christ. His pastorate, so to speak, ultimately included all the churches throughout the world, not just the seven mentioned in the opening chapters. And just like the other New Testament epistles, John has continued to speak to Christians throughout the ages.
Keeping in mind that Revelation is also a letter helps us appreciate the role that the doxology of (Rev. 1:4–8) plays. It is generally agreed that the thanksgiving sections (Phil. 1:3–11, for example) and doxology sections (Gal. 1:1–5, especially v. 5) found at the beginning of letters give a hint of the major themes to be developed throughout the book. This seems to be the case with the doxology in Revelation. The work of God, Christ, and the Holy Spirit pervades the book. Similarly the conflict between the priests of the Kingdom of God and those who reject Christ is also a major theme. Of course, the references to Christ’s first coming (Rev. 1:5) and the final coming (Rev. 1:7) provide the context for the conflict.
Awareness of the genres John used certainly challenges the way many Christians approach Revelation today. For example, the foretelling note is often emphasized to the neglect of the forth–telling emphasis. When this is done, a genre mistake is made. People misread Revelation and, therefore, misapply it. Rather than using the book to predict the future in great detail, the book should be used to guide Christians in proper living between Christ’s first and final comings. Christian character, conduct, and call to witness are highlighted again and again. As I noted earlier, this emphasis is often overlooked due to an obsession for using the book to interpret current world events. To counter this, there is value in fleshing out in general survey John’s methods for comforting and challenging Christians.
It is important, then, to show how was the book relevant for the first–century believers, and how does it apply to us today? If we take time to read the book carefully, asking the right questions, it becomes apparent that there is a marbling effect. John has layers of visions mingled with layers of exhortations and words of encouragement. Such artistry addresses a key concern proposed in the chapter on Revelation’s storied setting, namely, how disciples of Jesus should demonstrate their commitment to God and Christ in the midst of opposition and cultural seduction. If we analyze John’s techniques for interlacing visions with words of comfort and challenge, we discover that he uses at least seven strategies:
First, John’s designations for Christians are ultimately a reminder of who they are and what they should be doing. His most frequent name used for the disciples is saints [Rev. 5:8; Rev. 8:3–4; Rev. 11:18; Rev. 13:7, 10; Rev. 14:12; Rev. 16:6; Rev. 17:6; Rev. 18:20, 24; Rev. 19:8; Rev. 20:9 (in Rev. 20:9 the NIV translates “saints” as “God’s people”); see also Rev. 22:11]. They are to live holy lives in an unholy world. Disciples are also called priests who serve God (Rev. 1:6; Rev. 5:10; see also Rev. 20:6; Rev. 22:3), God’s people (Rev. 18:4; Rev. 21:3; see also Rev. 5:9; Rev. 7:9), the church (Rev. 1:4, 11, 20; Rev. 2:1, 7, 8, 11, 12, 17, 18, 23, 29; Rev. 3:1, 6, 7, 13, 14, 22; Rev. 22:16), servants (Rev. 1:1; Rev. 2:20; Rev. 7:3; Rev. 10:7; Rev. 11:18; Rev. 15:3; Rev. 19:2, 5; Rev. 22:3, 6), fellow–servants (Rev. 6:11; Rev. 19:10; Rev. 22:9), brothers (Rev. 1:9; Rev. 6:11; Rev. Rev. 12:10; Rev. 19:10; Rev. 22:9), witnesses (Rev. 11:3), a bride (Rev. 19:7; Rev. 21:2, 9; Rev. 22:17), a city (Rev.3:12; Rev. 21:2, 10ff.). They are the called, the chosen, the faithful (Rev. 17:14) as well as the righteous (Rev. 22:11).
Second, there are a number of phrases used to describe Jesus’ followers. They are those who are keepers of the testimony of Jesus (Rev. 14:12; Rev. 22:7, 9), obedient (Rev. 12:17), and hearers (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29; Rev. 3:6, 13, 22; Rev. 22:17, 18; see also Rev. 1:3). They are also watchers (Rev. 16:15) and keepers (Rev. 16:15), fearers (Rev. 11:18; Rev. 19:5) and followers (Rev. 14:4). Moreover, disciples are those whose names have been written in the book of life (Rev. 21:27), those who have been purchased (Rev. 14:3), those who have maintained their purity (Rev. 22:14), and those invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb (Rev. 19:9). One phrase needs to be highlighted. “To the one who overcomes” is used more than any of the above and is a call to overcome any number of evils (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 26; Rev. 3:5, 12, 21; Rev. 15:2; Rev. 21:7).
Third, John encourages and exhorts God’s people through the use of direct commands. In particular, disciples are commanded to repent (Rev. 2:5, 16; Rev. 3:3, 19), to remember (Rev. 2:5; Rev. 3:3), to do deeds (Rev. 2:5), not to fear (Rev. 2:10), to be faithful (Rev. 2:10), to be watchful (Rev. 3:2), to strengthen (Rev. 3:2), to obey (Rev. 3:13), to hold fast (Rev. 2:25; Rev. 3:11), to be zealous (Rev. 3:19), to leave evil behind (Rev. 18:4), to rejoice (Rev. 12:12; Rev.18:20), and to praise God (Rev. 19:5). In addition to these specific exhortations, Christians are challenged to hear (that is, to obey) what the Spirit says to the churches (Rev. 2:7, 11, 17, 29; Rev. 3:6, 13, 22). A similar phrase is found in Rev. 13:9, 18. Four commands are found in Rev. 22:11 and two in Rev. 22:17.
Fourth, four times we find the phrase, “This calls for …” In Rev. 13:18 and Rev. 17:9, Christians are called to demonstrate proper behavior in responding to evil powers. Christians need wisdom and knowledge in order to recognize the tactics of the forces of evil. Only then can they know how to conduct themselves as servants of God. The phrase is also used in Rev. 13:10 and Rev. 14:12 to summon the readers to perseverance, faith, and acceptance of God’s will. As wisdom is needed to understand the nature of evil, so perseverance and faith are needed to withstand the same evil forces, namely anti–Christian government and anti–Christian religions. As we observed in the second chapter, John is speaking about the Roman Empire and the imperial cult of his day. He calls upon his brothers and sisters to demonstrate both wisdom and courage while facing the evil forces of their day. The power of evil is great; perseverance and faith are needed if the Christians are to be victorious. The strategies of the beast are both deceptive and coercive (Rev. 13:1ff.). A knowledge that leads to insight is needed if the disciples are not to be deceived and are to remain faithful.
Fifth, privilege and responsibility are brought together in the so–called seven beatitudes (Rev. 1:3; Rev. 14:13; Rev. 16:15; Rev. 19:9; Rev. 20:6; Rev. 22:7, 14). The first and sixth beatitudes in Rev. 1:3 and Rev. 22:7 are virtually identical: God’s servants are blessed (i.e., an approval by God that results in joyful confidence) because they have heard God’s Word and obeyed. Similarly, in Rev. 16:15 the Christian must always be on guard. Christ will come unexpectedly so the Christian’s character and conduct must be a life seeking to be obedient to God’s will. At the final coming the righteous are blessed because they are invited to share in intimate fellowship with Christ because of their faithfulness (Rev. 19:8). Finally, Jesus pronounces as blessed those who have remained pure and faithful, in contrast with those who are “the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood” (Rev. 22:15).
Two of the beatitudes are linked with Christians who have been faithful unto death. First, in Rev. 14:13 those who remain faithful to the Lord unto death and do not worship evil will be blessed. Because they have persevered and refused to worship false gods, their fate will not be like the death of those who worship the beast (Rev. 14:11). Second, those who remained faithful unto death will be blessed because they share in the first resurrection (Rev. 20:4–6). Whether one believes this passage speaks about those who will reign with Christ on earth for one thousand years, or reign with Christ upon their death, is beside the point. Those who participate in this resurrection are those who have remained faithful to Jesus. These participants include both those who were executed because they did not give in to evil forces, and those who died natural deaths and were faithful until the end.
Sixth, even the formula, “if anyone,” tells us something about the disciple’s life. In Rev. 13:10 we read: “If anyone is to go into captivity, into captivity he will go. If anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he will be killed. This calls for patient endurance and faithfulness on the part of the saints.”
Even though there are questions concerning the precise meaning of this verse, what must be stressed is that John is informing readers how they should (or perhaps should not) respond to the beast that makes war against the saints (Rev. 12:17). I take the verse to mean the disciple accepts imprisonment and even death for the cause of Christ.
The fate of those who do not remain faithful is recorded in Rev. 14:9b–10 where an angel declares: “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb.” In verse 11 we read a brief description of the eternal punishment of the ones who succumb, and in verse 12 John calls upon Christians to endure, obey, and remain faithful to Jesus. Again, the conflict involves the beast (a symbol for the oppressive Roman government in John’s day and perhaps any oppressive governments over the centuries) and the Christian. In Rev. 13:9–10 there is guidance concerning the proper nonviolent response to hostile government activities. The believer in Rev. 13:9–10 may experience earthly torture and even death, but the faithless one will experience everlasting separation from God if there is compromise with the beast (Rev. 14:9ff.).
The formula “if anyone” appears one last time in connection with Christians in Rev. 20:15 where we read: “If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” The context is the Final Judgment in which both Christians and non–Christians stand before the throne of God. It serves not only as a word of comfort to the believers (their enemies will be judged), but also as a warning (Christians must not compromise). They are to remain faithful so that their names shall be found in the book of life (Rev. 3:5; Rev. 13:8; Rev. 17:8).
Seventh, there are five lists of virtues and vices where John speaks about people’s conduct. Revelation 9:20–21 focuses exclusively on the characteristics of those who refuse to repent and worship God. There are four that warn or encourage Christians. In Rev. 14:4–5 Christians are “those who have not defiled themselves with women.” This clause may be referring to those who kept themselves sexually pure or to those who did not commit spiritual immorality by worshiping other gods. Regardless, they are disciples of the Lamb; they belong to God and to the Lamb; they possess integrity in their speech; and they are blameless. They shall dwell with God (Rev. 14:1ff.). The three remaining lists are found in Rev. 21:8, 27 and Rev. 22:15 where John contrasts those who will dwell forever with God and those who will be forever apart from God.
The above is a sampling of the places where John speaks to Christians, reminding them who they are and what they should be doing. Time and again John builds on the emphasis first introduced in Rev. 1:3. He is calling upon the disciples to be obedient to God. It would be instructive to read through the entire document and find other places and strategies where John exhorts and encourages. For example, chapters 2 and 3 could be evaluated in detail where Jesus both commends (e.g., Rev. 2:2–3, 6, 8–11, 12–13, 19; Rev. 3:4, 7) and rebukes (Rev. 2:4, 5, 15, 20–24; Rev. 3:1–2, 15–17). There are threats of judgment, sometimes focusing on those who are not servants of God and the world in which they live (Rev. 6:1–8:5; Rev. 8:6–11:19; Rev. 15:1–16:21). Often Jesus threatens Christians with judgment (Rev. 2:16, 21–23; Rev. 3:3, 16; Rev. 14:9–13; Rev. 16:15; Rev. 18:4; Rev. 20:11–15; see also Rev. 21:8, 27; Rev. 22:15). There are promises of reward scattered throughout the book (Rev. 2:7, 10b–11, 17a, 26–28; Rev. 3:4–5, 11–12, 21; Rev. 7:13–14; Rev. 11:18; Rev. 14:1ff.17:14; Rev. 19:1–10), climaxing in Rev. 21:1ff.
Using the three genres (prophecy, apocalypse, and letter), John consistently weds privileges and responsibilities as he describes rewards for those who serve God. He also writes about the punishment that awaits those who renounce Jesus. At no point are the two separated. The character and conduct of the Christian life on earth anticipates or reflects the nature of life with God in the new heaven and new earth.
When reading Revelation the question we should not ask is: How does Revelation help us plot where we are on a prophetic time line so we may know when the Lord is coming? I believe that usually such an inquiry is raised because there has been a failure to identify and interpret the book’s genre. The proper question that will prove more productive and more pressing is this: In light of the future God has promised, what would he have us to do now in order to be faithful to the Lamb? Such an inquiry is natural when we recall that this perspective is at the heart of the letters, prophecies, and other apocalyptic literature found in Scripture. Indeed, such a question honors the style of the book.
If we desire to sing the lyrics before the Lamb in the new heaven and new earth, we need to begin singing them now.
Quoted and edited from: Lowery, R. (2006). Revelation’s rhapsody : Listening to the lyrics of the lamb : How to read the book of Revelation (80). Joplin, Mo.: College Press Pub. Co.
Behind any piece of music there is a story. A love song is written out of an experience involving an intimate relationship, or at least the hope for one. A song of lament arises out of some personal or national tragedy. A ballad tells a tale. Likewise, the book of Revelation has a fascinating story.
The backdrops for all of Revelation’s songs are stories involving God and his people. They are the accounts of John and other servants of God who lived in a hostile and seductive world at the end of the first century. Jesus no longer walked the dusty roads of the land of Israel. In John’s day, Jesus walked among the lamp-stands of seven churches located in Roman Asia Minor. What was the narrative of the church at the end of the first century? How did the stories of the individual congregations fit in with the larger story God was writing? We will see that a careful reading of the book in light of its situation challenges us to reflect on how the stories of those ancient Christian communities are similar to our own.
Yesterday before Today
Revelation did not appear in a time–space vacuum. It is not to be read first and foremost in light of our historical situation but in light of the one Christians faced at the end of the first century. The book was written by a real person to real people who identified themselves with congregations in Roman Asia. Every effort must be made to understand the culture in which the original author and recipients lived. What was going on in John’s life and in the lives of the members of the churches dwelling in the seven cities in Asia Minor? Why was the book written? Was there more than one reason?
Because some are so focused on learning how the book speaks to our day, the above questions are often ignored. To do so places the Bible student in great peril. Such an approach will lead the student to ask the wrong questions of individual passages, as well as the entire book. And in asking the wrong questions, we may very well miss the point of what John communicated. Bible students know that we must seek to understand the historical setting of every other book in the Bible. Why should we not do so with Revelation? Indeed, I believe when we take the time to explore the situation in John’s day, the book becomes even more exciting and encouraging to Christians living in the twenty–first century.
When we fill in the historical background of a biblical work in order to understand how it spoke to the original receivers, it is like using a film–making technique called “the green screen” (some use a “blue screen”). Anyone who has seen a special on how a movie was made is familiar with the green screen. Whenever a scene calls for a backdrop that cannot safely be shot or reproduced on location, the director will film the actors in front of a completely green background. Later, using usually computer technology, the background is filled in wherever the green appears.
Reading a book of the Bible without understanding the historical background is like watching actors perform before such a screen. Until we fill in the green, the scenes do not make any sense. When it comes to Revelation, many fill in the green with situations drawn from their own day rather than John’s. When they fill in the background with their own beliefs, prejudices, behavior, and practices, they are likely to distort the author’s intended meaning. Sadly, when the book is interpreted primarily in light of what is going on today, current events are read back into a first–century text. And then when the newspaper headlines fade, newer headlines are inserted in a vain attempt to give Revelation an up–to–date look and relevancy.
The necessity of interpreting Revelation in light of the situation in John’s day remains one of the hardest fought battles. As Bible students, we may be tempted to take what is thought to be the easiest path. But the shortcut to application that ignores John’s situation and focuses on our own day has consistently resulted in misunderstanding the book’s message. Before there can be application, there needs to be investigation of what each book of the Bible meant to the original recipients. This is a fundamental principle. We do this, for example, when studying Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth or Philippi, and we must do so when studying God’s message to the seven churches in Asia Minor.
As we attempt to comprehend the historical setting of John and his recipients we find ourselves blessed for at least two reasons. First, Revelation itself is a key source for understanding the conditions in which it was written, for both John and his audience. It describes the situation Jesus’ disciples encountered at the end of the first century, specifically their trials and temptations—past, present, and future. John’s work is a very reliable guide to understanding the place the church occupied in the ancient pagan world amidst the ocean of conflicting influences threatening to overwhelm many congregations.
Second, among the resources outside of Scripture, we have access to an exchange of letters between a Roman Emperor and a provincial governor. The correspondence gives an account of events of the early years of the second century, shedding light on how Roman politicians and people in general viewed Christians.
In John’s day, disciples of Jesus faced both internal and external dangers. Externally, John describes opposition Christians experienced at the hands of Jews and Romans. The internal menace concerned the temptation to compromise with culture and involved such issues as doctrinal, ethical, and spiritual problems found in the congregations. These external and internal perils are related: For where there is tribulation without, it is important to deal with the temptations within.
The term “conflict” describes the circumstances involving Christians and Romans at the end of the first century. I am using the word to refer to a clash between two opposing forces, powers, ideologies, or kingdoms because they cannot peacefully coexist. They cannot occupy the same space at the same time without strife. As the Kingdom of God expanded, it was increasingly perceived to be a danger to the Roman Empire. The very lifestyles of Christians challenged the Roman culture, which emphasized worshiping gods, embracing materialism and hedonism, and showing loyalty to the Empire by worshiping Caesar as a god.
The opening and closing chapters of the book present in a general way the nature of the conflict. Even though John sets himself apart as a prophet who receives visions, in Rev. 1:9 he aligns himself with the recipients of the book on three levels. First, the author and audience are brothers and sisters and companions because they are in the Kingdom. Second, because they submit to God’s rule, together they share the same end, experiencing persecution and opposition. Third, side by side they are called upon to demonstrate steadfastness.
John also alludes to the difficult conditions at the time of writing in Revelation 22:9 and 11. In verse 9 the angel associates himself with John, the other prophets, and with all Christians by declaring that together they are those “who keep the words of this book” (see Rev. 1:3). The teaching in verse 11 is to be understood in the context of the whole document. John is drawing a contrast between those disciples who show unyielding perseverance (“let him who does right continue to do right; and let him who is holy continue to be holy”) and those who refuse to be faithful in their worship of God as well as those who never worship God and instead pledge their allegiance to Satan (“let him who does wrong continue to do wrong; let him who is vile continue to be vile”). Evil and evildoers are a part of this world, and Christians must not compromise but remain constant in their loyalty to Christ (Rev. 22:14–15).
We can be more specific. Consider the Jewish opposition to the Christian movement. From its beginnings the church not only won converts among the Jews (Acts 2:41; Acts 5:14; Acts 9:1ff.; Acts 14:1), but it also suffered at the hands of those Jews who rejected Jesus as the Messiah (Acts 5:17ff.; Acts 7:57–8:3; Acts 9:1–2; Acts 12:1ff.; Acts 14:4ff.; Acts 17:1ff.; Acts 18:5ff.; Acts 28:17ff.; 1 Thess. 2:14ff.). Such opposition continued up to John’s day, as evidenced in Revelation 2:9 and Acts 3:8–9.
In Smyrna and Philadelphia, the Jews slandered the Christians by saying they were not God’s people. Perhaps they argued that only those who were associated with the Jewish synagogue belonged to God. The irony is that Jesus calls the synagogue of the Jews a “synagogue of Satan.” Furthermore, Revelation 2:9 refers to the afflictions and poverty experienced by Christians in Smyrna, a possible reference to physical and economic pressures exerted by the Jews (Heb. 10:32–34).
Even though we should not minimize the harm done to Christians by Jews in the first century, it was the Roman attitudes and actions toward Christians that deserve special attention. Revelation suggests that at the end of the first century, Roman toleration of Christians was fading and was being replaced by growing suspicion and vindictiveness (see also Acts 16:37ff.; Acts 19:35ff.; and 1 Peter). The Christians in Asia Minor found themselves in a period of transition where the response of the Roman government and populace toward them was changing for the worse.
Rejection and oppression came about because disciples faithful to Jesus realized they could not compromise their loyalty by pledging their allegiance to the Roman government. Faithful Christians simply could not worship the Emperor as a god, nor could they accept the Roman way of life filled with idolatry and immorality.
Let’s first consider the importance of the imperial cult. The Roman imperial religion was ultimately concerned with the welfare of the state, especially maintaining unity and peace in the Empire. As long as people expressed their loyalty to the superpower by participating in the imperial cult, then diverse customs and religious beliefs and practices were tolerated.
The overwhelming majority of scholars agree that the Roman cult in which the Emperor was worshiped as a god is the background behind such passages as Revelation 13:1–18; 14:9–11; and 19:19–20. It was this state religion that provided the means of securing the loyalty of the people and maintaining the unity of the Empire.
The Christian faith stood in clear opposition to the idolatrous claims of the state (along with the idolatrous and pagan lifestyle it sanctioned). John challenged the followers of Jesus to spurn the state religion since they acknowledged an authority greater than the Emperor in whom the authority of the government was incarnate. Furthermore, it is well known that the imperial cult was especially strong in Asia Minor, the region where the seven churches were attempting to live out their faith.
Written correspondence between the Roman Emperor Trajan and Pliny, the governor of the Roman province Bithynia, located north of Asia Minor, illustrates the nature of the Roman state religion and the threat it posed to Christians. What is remarkable is that the exchange of the letters took place less than twenty years after John wrote the Revelation (around A.D. 95). Trajan was Emperor A.D. 98–117 and Pliny was governor A.D. 111–112.
The two letters are reproduced here in their entirety for two reasons. First, they make for fascinating reading by shedding light on how Roman officials viewed the Christian faith. Second, many Christians have never had the opportunity to read a document outside of Revelation that helps us understand the environment just a few years after John’s writing had circulated among the churches in Asia Minor.
These letters are the key records we have concerning the official policy toward the Christians in the two centuries from Nero (A.D. 54–68) to Decius (A.D. 249–251), in whose brief reign the organized imperial persecution of Christianity was begun. The correspondence highlights the political charges against Christians (e.g., disobedience of imperial officials, violation of the laws on illegal meetings, and so forth) and popular grievances against the disciples (e.g., Christians were accused of being atheists because they did not worship the gods, and they were also suspected of cannibalism, due to a misunderstanding concerning the celebration of the Lord’s Supper).
The two letters reproduced here demand little comment due to their clarity. The first is Pliny asking Trajan for guidance in dealing with the trials of Christians. He writes:
It is my practice, my lord, to refer to you all matters concerning which I am in doubt. For who can better give guidance to my hesitation or inform my ignorance? I have never participated in trials of Christians. I therefore do not know what offenses it is the practice to punish or investigate, and to what extent. And I have been not a little hesitant as to whether there should be any distinction on account of age or no difference between the very young and the more mature; whether pardon is to be granted for repentance, or, if a man has once been a Christian, it does him no good to have ceased to be one; whether the name itself, even without offenses, or only the offenses associated with the name are to be punished.
Meanwhile, in the case of those who were denounced to me as Christians, I have observed the following procedure: I interrogated these as to whether they were Christians; those who confessed I interrogated a second and a third time, threatening them with punishment; those who persisted I ordered executed. For I had no doubt that, whatever the nature of their creed, stubbornness and inflexible obstinacy deserve to be punished. There were others possessed of the same folly; but because they were Roman citizens, I signed an order for them to be transferred to Rome.
Soon accusations spread, as usually happens, because of the proceedings going on, and several incidents occurred. An anonymous document was published containing the names of many persons. Those who denied that they were or had been Christians, when they invoked the gods in words dictated by me, offered prayer with incense and wine to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for this purpose together with statues of the gods, and moreover cursed Christ—none of which those who are really Christians, it is said, can be forced to do—these I thought should be discharged. Others named by the informer declared that they were Christians, but then denied it, asserting that they had been but had ceased to be, some three years before, others many years, some as much as twenty–five years. They all worshipped your image and the statues of the gods, and cursed Christ.
They asserted, however, that the sum and substance of their fault or error had been that they were accustomed to meet on a fixed day before dawn and sing responsively a hymn to Christ as to a god, and to bind themselves by oath, not to some crime, but to not commit fraud, theft, or adultery, not to falsify their trust, nor to refuse to return a trust when called upon to do so. When this was over, it was their custom to depart and to assemble again to partake of food—but ordinary and innocent food. Even this, they affirmed, they had ceased to do after my edict by which, in accordance with your instructions, I had forbidden political associations. Accordingly, I judged it all the more necessary to find out what the truth was by torturing two female slaves who were called deaconesses. But I discovered nothing else but depraved excessive superstition.
I therefore postponed the investigation and hastened to consult you. For the matter seemed to me to warrant consulting you, especially because of the number involved. For many persons of every age, every rank, and also of both sexes are and will be endangered. For the contagion of this superstition has spread not only to the cities but also to the villages and farms. But it seems possible to check and cure it. It is certainly quite clear that the temples, which had been almost deserted, have begun to be frequented, that the established religious rites, long neglected, are being resumed, and that from everywhere sacrificial animals are coming, for which until now very few purchases could be found. Hence it is easy to imagine what a multitude of people can be reformed if an opportunity for repentance is afforded.
Trajan’s response to Pliny is brief but sharp in its tone:
You observed proper procedure, my dear Pliny, in sifting the cases of those who had been denounced to you as Christians. For it is not possible to lay down any general rule to serve as a kind of fixed standard. They are not to be sought out; if they are denounced and proved guilty, they are to be punished, with this reservation, that whoever denies that he is a Christian and really proves it—that is, by worshipping our gods—even though he was under suspicion in the past, shall obtain pardon through repentance. But anonymously posted accusations ought to have no place in any prosecution. For this is both a dangerous kind of precedent and out of keeping with [the spirit of] our age.
The letters reveal that Trajan as Emperor had no legal precedent to appeal to with regard to Pliny’s questions concerning the treatment of Christians. Christians aroused suspicions for two reasons. First, they were viewed as members of an antisocial cult or, in the words of the governor, a “superstition” or “disease.” Second, Christ’s disciples were suspect because they refused to participate in the worship of the Emperor as a god. For a Christian, only Christ could be addressed as “Master and God.”
A note of caution is in order. It may surprise you, but there is no clear support for the view that Christians in the first century were being persecuted in a systematic way. However, there had been outbursts of persecution. For example, Nero’s persecution of the Christians living in Rome in the mid 60s is well known. It seems reasonable to assume that Christians living outside of Rome would have grown anxious, wondering if they too would soon be attacked.
When we read through Revelation, sometimes the antagonism seems to refer to events in the recent past (Rev. 2:13; Rev. 6:9–11), sometimes ongoing (Rev. 1:9), and at other times there are hints of persecution to come (Rev. 20:7–10). Sometimes there is lack of clarity (Rev. 13:1ff.). The past and present acts of hostility hint at more difficult days ahead (Rev. 13:1ff.; Rev. 14:9–13; Rev. 15:7; Rev. 17:4; Rev. 19:20). Revelation teaches that resistance will become more organized and widespread; times will become tougher for Jesus’ disciples.
We now turn to what I believe was the greatest menace facing the Christians in John’s day. It was not from direct persecution, but from temptation to compromise with their culture. The threat of cultural seduction lies behind many of the passages of the book.
The specter of compromise has followed God’s people throughout the centuries. For example, as the Jews in Daniel’s day faced the threat of “Babylonization,” so the Christians in John’s day faced the threat of “Romanization.” John saw Roman culture, like Babylon of old, as seductress, using all of its moral, social, economic, religious, political, and military might to lure Christians into complacency in serving God and loving one another (Rev. 14:8; 17–18). Resisting the power of cultural seduction is sounded again and again in the book.
The situations faced by the early Christians were not unlike those faced by ancient Israel in both the Old Testament (the influence of the Canaanites, Assyrians, Babylonians, and so forth) and intertestamental times (the period between the last of the Old Testament writings and the coming of Christ where Greek influence especially was a threat). Fidelity to God when confronting adversaries and alluring cultures was a note sounded time and again in the Scriptures. Hence, it is not surprising that John uses the language and images from Old Testament writings like Ezekiel, Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Daniel to portray the nature of the conflict and the demands made of God’s people.
It is especially in the messages to the seven churches, though not limited to them (Rev. 14:4–5; Rev. 16:15; Rev. 18:4; Rev. 21:8; Rev. 22:11, 14–15), that the reader can see the temptations facing Christians to go along with Roman culture in order to get along with their neighbors. Church members in Sardis (save a minority) and Laodicea had grown complacent, having abandoned their earlier faith and zeal (Rev. 3:1–4, 15–19). Their complacency had provoked little, if any, response from the communities in which they lived.
Ephesians Christians had displayed doctrinal and moral purity (Rev. 2:2–3, 6), but their zeal for truth caused them to forsake the love they had for God and other disciples at the beginning of their pilgrimage (Rev. 2:4–5). Perhaps they had forgotten to heed Paul’s earlier counsel to speak and live the truth in love (Eph. 4:15).
Acceptance of false teachers and their teachings had resulted in Christians at Thyatira and Pergamum practicing immorality and idolatry (Rev. 2:14–15, 18–23; see also Rev. 2:6). These two churches probably provide evidence of the power of trade guilds in the ancient world. It was expected that workers associated with certain occupations would worship the gods and goddesses who blessed their labors, and that worship often resulted in committing acts of immorality with the temple priests and priestesses.
Only disciples in Smyrna and Philadelphia escaped censure. Ironically, their refusal to compromise had led, or was going to lead, to attempts to destroy them (Rev. 2:10; Rev. 3:10).
Revelation divulges that some Christians had clearly capitulated to culture, while others had conspicuously remained ardent in their loyalty to Christ. In between these two extremes were followers who needed to be shaken from their spiritual lethargy and challenged to accept the cost of discipleship. All the churches in Asia Minor were admonished not to reflect the character of the cities in which they lived. Why? These cities were fashioned in the image of Rome, the capital of the Empire, a city noted for its depravity and violence. On the contrary, the Christians were called upon to repent and remain uncontaminated by the sins of a culture opposed to God (Rev. 2:5, 16, 21–22; Rev. 3:3, 19; see also Rev. 9:20–21; Rev. 18:4).
By rejecting these lifestyles Christians highlighted the distinctiveness of their way of life: Idolatrous and licentious living was not tolerated. Their separatism combined with their customs led to misunderstandings in which Christians were accused of numerous offenses, ranging from immorality to atheism to cannibalism to anarchy.
Thus Revelation presents a picture of the Roman way of life versus the Christian way of life (Rev. 2–3; Rev. 9:20–21; Rev. 13:1ff.; Rev. 18:1ff.; Rev. 21:8; Rev. 22:11, 14–15). The former involved recognition and acceptance of other religions and behaviors opposed to the Christian view while at the same time supporting the right of the Empire and Emperor to command supreme allegiance through the Roman state religion (Rev. 9:20–21; Rev. 13:1ff.).
The Christian faith stood in direct opposition to idolatrous claims of the state and the idolatrous and libertine living it sanctioned. To become and to remain a Christian demanded absolute faithfulness to God and the way of life ordained by him. Hence John’s readers were exhorted to turn their backs on idolatry, immorality, and other practices so readily accepted by the Roman people. Moreover, Christians were admonished to spurn the state religion since they acknowledged an authority greater than the Emperor, in whom the authority of the state was incarnate.
Accordingly Christians were not acceptable to the Roman government and its people politically, religiously, and socially. Politically, Christians were viewed as a danger to the unity of the Empire by their refusal to worship the Emperor as a god. Religiously, Christians repudiated the legitimacy of other religions. Socially, Christians rejected the pagan way of life. By their very lifestyles Christians opened themselves to attack. Rejection and oppression were unavoidable. Revelation called upon believers to demonstrate the separateness of the Christian life, a life that demanded absolute devotion and obedience to God. Ironically Christians were viewed as aggressors. They sought to win converts, and, in turn, those converts were to become witnesses to the lordship of Christ.
Today in Light of Yesterday
Once we have reconstructed the first–century culture in general, it is appropriate to cross the bridge to our own century. Indeed, a reading of church history reveals that the twin threats of government persecution and cultural seduction have been present throughout the centuries. Whenever we as Christians seek to be countercultural, we will be perceived to be enemies of the status quo. As a result, we should not be surprised to experience the world’s enmity.
As I have stressed, the starting point for interpreting Revelation correctly and applying it meaningfully rests in understanding how it spoke to disciples in the first century. It does not take much effort to realize that the book still speaks to Christians. Rather than reading with today’s newspaper in one hand and Revelation in the other and seeing contemporary events predicted in a first–century document, we should understand the “newspaper headlines” in John’s day first and foremost. Our common ground for understanding the book is not current events but the interpretation of the Bible in light of ancient events, specifically the events in John’s day and in the decades immediately following the writing of Revelation.
It dawned on me that a Polish preacher, for example, would not necessarily preach what an American would preach, especially if the latter were using an American newspaper to interpret the scenes in Revelation. If the Polish preacher were to use a native newspaper, the conclusions could very well be different because the headlines may not be the same as those found in the American paper. For example, on August 29, 2005, one of the worst hurricanes in history struck southern portions of the United States. The damage from Hurricane Katrina was incalculable. Many American preachers used its occurrence as a springboard to deliver dire predictions that the end of the world was near. In the mean time, that hurricane never made it to the front pages of the Polish newspapers. Preachers living thousands of miles away in Poland would not have been able to use a catastrophic storm that had hit the United States to indicate where history was on the prophetic timetable!
When we understand the setting of Revelation, we see that John’s work emphasizes a message found throughout Scripture. The God we worship is the God of “the underdog.” This theme is found in the Old Testament: Moses confronting Pharaoh; Joshua and his ragtag army fighting the forces of the Canaanites; David challenging Goliath; Elijah rebuking the prophets of Baal; Isaiah and Hezekiah rejecting the claims of Sennacherib and the mighty Assyrian army; and Daniel not bowing before the might of Babylon. The story continues in the New Testament: John and his band of Jesus–disciples refusing to compromise with Rome; Peter and John ignoring the threats of the Jewish leaders; Paul confronting the Athenians; and, supremely, Jesus himself reigning in victory in spite of all the forces of evil allied against him.
The book of Revelation opens against the backdrop of Patmos where an aged apostle has been banished, all alone, where there is no city (Rev.1:9). In the succeeding chapters we read of Christians dwelling in cities, cities that lived in the shadow of the greatest city of the ancient world, Rome. And we see the forces of the imperial city, Rome itself, and the seven cities of Asia Minor aligned against the small congregations, either persecuting them or threatening to do so while always attempting to seduce them to worship false gods and what the world offered. Is it not paradoxical that John’s final vision is that of the holy city, the New Jerusalem, a symbol for the people of God?
But until we dwell perfectly with God, we continue to live in cities alienated from God due to ungodly living of their citizens. We must heed the voice from heaven that warned Christians about the perils of living in Babylon: “Come out of her, my people, so that you will not share in her sins, so that you will not receive any of her plagues; for her sins are piled up to heaven and God has remembered her crimes” (Rev. 18:4–5). These verses serve as a reminder through the centuries that the people of God must never compromise their identity. Jesus’ followers know that the delights found in Babylon are doomed; someday its music will cease (Rev.18:22). They also know that someday there will only be songs offered in praise to God when evil is abolished and goodness reigns (Rev. 19:1ff.).
I have used designations like “Babylonization” and “Romanization” to describe ancient situations facing God’s people. As a Christian who is an American citizen two questions haunt me: Is one of the greatest threats to the integrity and witness of the church the “Americanization” of disciples of Jesus? Do Christ’s enemies find the American church enough of a threat to bother opposing?
[Quoted and edited from: Lowery, R. (2006). Revelation's rhapsody : Listening to the lyrics of the lamb : How to read the book of Revelation (62). Joplin, Mo.: College Press Pub. Co.]