The Historical Context of the Book of Revelation

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.

Persecution

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.

Cultural Seduction

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.]

 

The Historical Context of Revelation – Part 1 – Dr. Eugenia Constantinou

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Dr. Eugenia Constantinou discusses the historical context in which the book of Revelation was written. The patristic and Orthodox tradition is to always read a book within its historical context – listen along to learn who wrote Revelation and the how sufferings of Christians within the Roman Empire compelled its writing.

Click here to download MP3 file.