Let me ask you once again to recall the significance of seeing that Revelation is a letter. Because Revelation is a letter, we simply must keep in mind the original audience – the 1st century churches living in Asia Minor under the long reach of the Roman Empire.
We’re going to spend the rest of this week camping out in Revelation 2-3, which is composed of seven messages from Jesus to his churches. (The order in which these churches appear in the text actually follows the standard mailing route in Asia Minor.) The further we get away from Revelation 2-3 the easier it is to forget about them, so we must choose to constantly remember that Revelation was written to them first. God certainly wants to speak to us through this book, but we have to respect the fact that he spoke to them first. It was God’s word to them before it is God’s word to us.
The most important thing for us to know about the life situation of these followers of Jesus is that they were being seduced by the surrounding (imperial) culture to compromise their absolute allegiance to the kingdom of God.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? (Maybe this book isn’t so far-removed after all!)
As we’ve said, these followers of Jesus lived in the Roman Empire, which was unquestionably one of the most powerful nations that has ever existed, either before or since. (Of course “nations” is a bit anachronistic, but you get the point.)
According to the official cultural script, Rome had brought unity, peace, and security to a world that desperately needed freedom from political fear. And the people loved them for it. (Well, most of them. Of course those whose families they slaughtered in the securing of “peace” and “freedom” weren’t so fond.)
Generally speaking, “religion” in the Roman Empire was more about ritual and political positioning than anything else. For this reason, Rome was fairly tolerant to all “religions” as long as they didn’t disrupt the social order. One of the ways the people showed their loyalty, gratitude, and support to the Empire and its social order, was by setting up temples to their emperors.
So these emperor cults (or “imperial” cults), as they came to be called, were one of the primary tools used to enhance the “glory of Rome” in the mind of the people, and to secure political and social cohesion throughout Roman lands. This would’ve been especially important in places like Asia Minor, which were quite a bit of distance away from Rome itself.
As far as what went down there, to oversimplify quite a bit, people would come and burn incense to the emperor, offering prayers as evidence of their thankfulness and allegiance.
As time passed, however, as the church grew and the counter-imperial values of Jesus’ people became more and more obvious to all, some Imperial Cult leaders demanded that Jesus-followers recant their faith and deny that they worshiped Jesus. It’s not hard to see why John had a serious problem with this. What is more, even when Rome wasn’t asking for explicit denial of Jesus, the Roman way of life seduced followers of Jesus away from radical commitment to Jesus, instead of Caesar, as Savior and Lord. (These two commitments called for two very different ways of life, as we will see.)
Living what we learn
The Christians living in Asia Minor in the latter parts of the first century only had a few options:
1. They could quit. Some of them chose this option. When they said yes to Jesus, they never dreamed it would lead to this, so they cursed Christ, bowed to Rome, and lived. This is why John keeps calling for “patient and faithful endurance.”
2. They could lie. They could tell themselves that this ceremony was nothing more than a ritual. They could argue that the Romans didn’t understand their faith, and that God didn’t want anyone to die for a misunderstanding. This is probably what John has in mind when he talks about “liars” (3.9; 21.8).
3. They could fight. This wouldn’t have done much good since the Christians were a tiny minority, but armed rebellion has always been an option for the oppressed (see 13.10).
4. They could adjust. They could point out that the world had changed since Jesus was around, and that it would be desirable to find a comfortable mixture between the essentials of faith and the good elements of Roman culture. (All of the false teachers John mentions were people who were trying to convince them that this was acceptable.)
5. They could die. They could risk death by maintaining a serious and uncompromising whole-life commitment to Jesus, not Caesar, as Lord.
We maybe aren’t being intimidated by anything quite like the emperor cult, but we certainly aren’t free from pressure to conform.
Think about our own society for a minute. What are some ways that we are tempted to compromise our allegiance to God’s kingdom by conforming to society’s standards and ways of thinking?
Revelation certainly isn’t the only place where we are promised that we will be tempted or seduced in this way.
Now looking back at our list of options in the first century, how would you characterize your typical response to situations of personal temptation? How about the American church as a whole – what has been her response to social seduction (from both the “right” and the “left”!)?
Many of us may never face death for our faith, but sometimes staying alive and living faithfully can be just as tough. Read through these verses about the possibility of and rewards for faithfulness:
The vision and values of God’s kingdom always stand in contrast to the values and vision of the kingdoms of the world, whether in the 1st century or the 21st. Faithfulness to Jesus always means resisting seduction from the kingdoms of the world. Using Rome as a symbol for the ways of empire, we might say it like this: Obedience to Jesus means resistance to Rome. Sometimes resistance is quite costly, but you just can’t have one without the other.