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by William Barclay
INTRODUCTION TO THE REVELATION OF JOHN
The Strange Book
When a student of the New Testament embarks upon the study of the Revelation he feels himself projected into a different world. Here is something quite unlike the rest of the New Testament. Not only is the Revelation different; it is also notoriously difficult for a modern mind to understand. The result is that it has sometimes been abandoned as quite unintelligible and it has sometimes become the playground of religious eccentrics, who use it to map out celestial time-tables of what is to come or find in it evidence for their own eccentricities. One despairing commentator said that there are as many riddles in the Revelation as there are words, and another that the study of the Revelation either finds or leaves a man mad.
Luther would have denied the Revelation a place in the New Testament. Along with James, Jude, Second Peter and Hebrews he relegated it to a separate list at the end of his New Testament. He declared that in it there are only images and visions such as are found nowhere else in the Bible. He complained that, notwithstanding the obscurity of his writing, the writer had the boldness to add threats and promises for those who kept or disobeyed his words, unintelligible though they were. In it, said Luther, Christ is neither taught nor acknowledged; and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is not perceptible in it. Zwingli is equally hostile to the Revelation. "With the Apocalypse," he writes, "we have no concern, for it is not a biblical book.... The Apocalypse has no savour of the mouth or the mind of John. I can, if I so will, reject its testimonies." Most voices have stressed the unintelligibility of the Revelation and not a few have questioned its right to a place in the New Testament.
On the other hand there are those in every generation who have loved this book. T. S. Kepler quotes the verdict of Philip Carrington and makes it his own: "In the case of the Revelation we are dealing with an artist greater than Stevenson or Coleridge or Bach. St. John has a better sense of the right word than Stevenson; he has a greater command of unearthly supernatural loveliness than Coleridge; he has a richer sense of melody and rhythm and composition than Bach.... It is the only masterpiece of pure art in the New Testament.... Its fullness and richness and harmonic variety place it far above Greek tragedy."
We shall no doubt find this book difficult and bewildering; but doubtless, too, we shall find it infinitely worthwhile to wrestle with it until it gives us its blessing and opens its riches to us.
In any study of the Revelation we must begin by remembering the basic fact that although unique in the New Testament, it is nonetheless representative of a kind of literature which was the commonest of all between the Old and the New Testaments. The Revelation is commonly called the Apocalypse, being in Greek Apokalupsis. Between the Old and the New Testaments there grew up a great mass of what is called Apocalyptic literature, the product of an indestructible Jewish hope.
The Jews could not forget that they were the chosen people of God. To them that involved the certainty that some day they would arrive at world supremacy. In their early history they looked forward to the coming of a king of David's line who would unite the nation and lead them to greatness. There was to come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse ( Isaiah 11:1; Isaiah 11:10). God would raise up a righteous branch for David ( Jeremiah 23:5). Some day the people would serve David their king ( Jeremiah 30:9). David would be their shepherd and their king ( Ezekiel 34:23; Ezekiel 37:24). The booth of David would be repaired ( Amos 9:11); out of Bethlehem there would come a ruler who would be great to the ends of the earth ( Micah 5:2-4).
But the whole history of Israel gave the lie to these hopes. After the death of Solomon, the kingdom, small enough to begin with, split into two under Rehoboam and Jeroboam and so lost its unity. The northern kingdom, with its capital at Samaria, vanished in the last quarter of the eighth century B.C. before the assault of the Assyrians, never again reappeared in history and is now the lost ten tribes. The southern kingdom, with its capital at Jerusalem, was reduced to slavery and exile by the Babylonians in the early part of the sixth century B.C. It was later the subject state of the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans. History for the Jews was a catalogue of disasters from which it became clear that no human deliverer could rescue them.
The Two Ages
Jewish thought stubbornly held to the conviction of the chosenness of the Jews but had to adjust itself to the facts of history. It did so by working out a scheme of history. The Jews divided all time into two ages. There was this present age, which is wholly bad and beyond redemption. For it there can be nothing but total destruction. The Jews, therefore, waited for the end of things as they are. There was the age which is to come which was to be wholly good, the golden age of God in which would be peace, prosperity and righteousness and God's chosen people would at last be vindicated and receive the place that was theirs by right.
How was this present age to become the age which is to come? The Jews believed that the change could never be brought about by human agency and, therefore, looked for the direct intervention of God. He would come striding on to the stage of history to blast this present world out of existence and bring in his golden time. The day of the coming of God was called The Day of the Lord and was to be a terrible time of terror and destruction and judgment which would be the birthpangs of the new age.
All apocalyptic literature deals with these events, the sin of the present age, the terrors of the time between, and the blessings of the time to come. It is entirely composed of dreams and visions of the end. That means that all apocalyptic literature is necessarily cryptic. It is continually attempting to describe the indescribable, to say the unsayable, to paint the unpaintable.
This is further complicated by another fact. It was only natural that these apocalyptic visions should flame the more brightly in the minds of men living under tyranny and oppression. The more some alien power held them down, the more they dreamed of the destruction of that power and of their own vindication. But it would only have worsened the situation, if the oppressing power could have understood these dreams. Such writings would have seemed the works of rebellious revolutionaries. Such books, therefore, were frequently written in code, deliberately couched in language which was unintelligible to the outsider; and there are many cases in which they must remain unintelligible because the key to the code no longer exists. But the more we know about the historical background of such books, the better we can interpret them.
All this is the precise picture of our Revelation. There are any number of Jewish Apocalypses--Enoch, The Sibylline Oracles, The Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, The Ascension of Isaiah, The Assumption of Moses, The Apocalypse of Baruch, Fourth Ezra. Our Revelation is a Christian Apocalypse. It is the only one in the New Testament, although there were many others which did not gain admission. It is written exactly on the Jewish pattern and follows the basic conception of the two ages. The only difference is that for the day of the Lord it substitutes the coming in power of Jesus Christ. Not only the pattern but the details are the same. The Jewish apocalypses had a standard apparatus of events which were to happen at the last time; these events all have their place in Revelation.
Before we go on to outline that pattern of events, another question arises. Both apocalyptic and prophecy deal with the events which are to come. What, then, is the difference between them?
Apocalyptic And Prophecy
The difference between the prophets and the apocalyptists was very real. There were two main differences, one of message and one of method.
(i) The prophet thought in terms of this present world. His message was often a cry for social, economic and political justice; and was always a summons to obey and serve God within this present world. To the prophet it was this world which was to be reformed and in which God's kingdom would come. This has been expressed by saying that the prophet believed in history. He believed that in the events of history God's purpose was being worked out. In one sense the prophet was an optimist, for, however sternly he condemned things as they were, he nonetheless believed that they could be mended, if men would accept the will of God. To the apocalyptist the world was beyond mending. He believed, not in the reformation, but in the dissolution of this present world. He looked forward to the creation of a new world, when this one had been shattered by the avenging wrath of God. In one sense, therefore, the apocalyptist was a pessimist, for he did not believe that things as they were could ever be cured. True, he was quite certain that the golden age would come, but only after this world had been destroyed.
(ii) The prophet's message was spoken; the message of the apocalyptist was always written. Apocalyptic is a literary production. Had it been delivered by word of mouth, men would never have understood it. It is difficult, involved, often unintelligible; it has to be pored over before it can be understood. Further, the prophet always spoke under his own name; all apocalyptic writings--except our New Testament one--are pseudonymous. They are put into the mouths of great ones of the past, like Noah, Enoch, Isaiah, Moses, The Twelve Patriarchs, Ezra and Baruch. There is something pathetic about this. The men who wrote the apocalyptic literature had the feeling that greatness was gone from the earth; they were too self-distrusting to put their names to their works and attributed them to the great figures of the past, thereby seeking to give them an authority greater than their own names could have given. As Julicher put it: "Apocalyptic is prophecy turned senile."
The Apparatus Of Apocalyptic
Apocalyptic literature has a pattern; it seeks to describe the things which will happen at the last times and the blessedness which will follow; and the same pictures occur over and over again. It always, so to speak, worked with the same materials; and these materials find their place in our Book of the Revelation.
(i) In apocalyptic literature the Messiah was a divine, preexistent, otherworldly figure of power and glory, waiting to descend into the world to begin his all-conquering career. He existed in heaven before the creation of the world, before the sun and the stars were made, and he is preserved in the presence of the Almighty (Enoch 48:3, 6; 62:7; 4Ezra 13:25-26). He will come to put down the mighty from their seats, to dethrone the kings of the earth, and to break the teeth of sinners (Enoch 42:2-6; 48:2-9; 62:5-9; 69:26-29). In apocalyptic there was nothing human or gentle about the Messiah; he was a divine figure of avenging power and glory before whom the earth trembled in terror.
(ii) The coming of the Messiah was to be preceded by the return of Elijah who would prepare the way for him ( Malachi 4:5-6). Elijah was to stand upon the hills of Israel, so the Rabbis said, and announce the coming of the Messiah with a voice so great that it would sound from one end of the earth to the other.
(iii) The last terrible times were known as "the travail of the Messiah." The coming of the Messianic age would be like the agony of birth. In the Gospels Jesus is depicted as foretelling the signs of the end and is reported as saying: "All these things are the beginnings of sorrows" ( Matthew 24:8; Mark 13:8). The word for sorrows is odinai ( G5604) , and it literally means birthpangs.
(iv) The last days will be a time of terror. Even the mighty men will cry bitterly ( Zephaniah 1:14); the inhabitants of the land shall tremble ( Joel 2:1); men will be affrighted with fear and will seek some place to hide and will find none (Enoch 102:1,3).
(v) The last days will be a time when the world will be shattered, a time of cosmic upheaval when the universe, as men know it, will be disintegrated. The stars will be extinguished; the sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood ( Isaiah 13:10; Joel 2:30-31; Joel 3:15). The firmament will crash in ruins; there will be a cataract of raging fire, and creation will become a molten mass (Sibylline Oracles 3: 83-89). The seasons will lose their order, and there will be neither night nor dawn (Sibylline Oracles 3: 796-806).
(vi) The last days will be a time when human relationships will be destroyed. Hatred and enmity will reign upon the earth. Every man's hand will be against his neighbour ( Zechariah 14:13). Brothers will kill each other; parents will murder their own children; from dawn to sunset they shall slay one another (Enoch 100:1-2). Honour will be turned into shame, and strength into humiliation, and beauty into ugliness. The man of humility will become the man of envy; and passion will hold sway over the man who once was peaceful (Baruch 48:31-37).
(vii) The last days will be a time of judgment. God will come like a refiner's fire, and who can endure the day of his coming? ( Malachi 3:1-3). It is by the fire and the sword that God will plead with men ( Isaiah 66:15-16). The Son of Man will destroy sinners from the earth (Enoch 69:27), and the smell of brimstone will pervade all things (Sibylline Oracles 3: 58-61). The sinners will be burned up as Sodom was long ago (Jubilees 36:10-11).
(viii) In all these visions the Gentiles have their place, but it is not always the same place.
(a) Sometimes the vision is that the Gentiles will be totally destroyed. Babylon will become such a desolation that there will be no place for the wandering Arab to plant his tent among the ruins, no place for the shepherd to graze his sheep; it will be nothing more than a desert inhabited by the beasts ( Isaiah 13:19-22). God will tread down the Gentiles in his anger ( Isaiah 63:6). The Gentiles will come over in chains to Israel ( Isaiah 45:14).
(b) Sometimes there is depicted one last gathering of the Gentiles against Jerusalem, and one last battle in which they are destroyed ( Ezekiel 38:14-23; Ezekiel 39:1-16; Zechariah 14:1-11). The kings of the nations will throw themselves against Jerusalem; they will seek to ravage the shrine of the Holy One; they will place their thrones in a ring round the city, with their infidel people with them; but it will be only for their final destruction (Sibylline Oracles 3: 663-672).
(c) Sometimes there is the picture of the conversion of the Gentiles through Israel. God has given Israel for a light to the Gentiles, that she may be God's salvation to the ends of the earth ( Isaiah 49:6). The isles wait upon God ( Isaiah 51:5); the ends of the earth are invited to look to God and be saved ( Isaiah 45:20-22). The Son of Man will be a light to the Gentiles (Enoch 48:4-5). Nations shall come from the ends of the earth to Jerusalem to see the glory of God (Wis 17:34).
Of all the pictures in connection with the Gentiles the commonest is that of the destruction of the Gentiles and the exaltation of Israel.
(ix) In the last days the Jews who have been scattered throughout the earth will be ingathered to the Holy City again. They will come back from Assyria and from Egypt and will worship the Lord in his holy mountain ( Isaiah 27:12-13). The hills will be removed and the valleys will be filled in, and even the trees will gather to give them shade, as they come back ( Bar_5:5-9 ). Even those who died as exiles in far countries will be brought back.
(x) In the last days the New Jerusalem, which is already prepared in heaven with God (4 Ezra 10:44-44; Ezra 4:1-24 Ezra 2:1-70 Bar_4:1-37 Ezra 4:2-6), will come down among men. It will be beautiful beyond compare with foundations of sapphires, and pinnacles of agate, and gates of carbuncles, on borders of pleasant stones ( Isaiah 54:12-13; Tob_13:16-17 ). The glory of the latter house will be greater than the glory of the former ( Haggai 2:7-9).
(xi) An essential part of the apocalyptic picture of the last days was the resurrection of the dead. "Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt" ( Daniel 12:2-3). Sheol and the grave will give back that which has been entrusted to them (Enoch 51:1). The scope of the resurrection of the dead varied. Sometimes it was to apply only to the righteous in Israel; sometimes to all Israel; and sometimes to all men everywhere. Whichever form it took, it is true to say that now for the first time we see emerging a strong hope of a life beyond the grave.
(xii) There were differences as to how long the Messianic kingdom was to last. The most natural--and the most usual--view was to think of it as lasting for ever. The kingdom of the saints is an everlasting kingdom ( Daniel 7:27). Some believed that the reign of the Messiah would last for 400 years. They arrived at this figure from a comparison of Genesis 15:13 and Psalms 90:15. In Genesis Abraham is told that the period of affliction of the children of Israel will be 400 years; the psalmist's prayer is that God will make the nation glad according to the days wherein he has afflicted them and the years wherein they have seen evil. In the Revelation the view is that there is to be a reign of the saints for a thousand years; then the final battle with the assembled powers of evil; then the golden age of God.
Such were the events which the apocalyptic writers pictured in the last days; and practically all of them find their place in the pictures of the Revelation. To complete the picture we may briefly summarize the blessings of the coming age.
The Blessings Of The Age To Come
(i) The divided kingdom will be united again. The house of Judah will walk again with the house of Israel ( Jeremiah 3:18; Isaiah 11:13; Hosea 1:11). The old divisions will be healed and the people of God will be one.
(ii) There will be in the world an amazing fertility. The wilderness will become a field ( Isaiah 32:15), it will become like the garden of Eden ( Isaiah 51:3); the desert will rejoice and blossom like the crocus ( Isaiah 35:1). The earth will yield its fruit ten thousandfold; on each vine will be a thousand branches, on each branch a thousand clusters, in each cluster a thousand grapes, and each grape will give a cor (120 gallons) of wine (2 Baruch 29:5-8). There will be a plenty such as the world has never known and the hungry will rejoice.
(iii) A consistent part of the dream of the new age was that in it all wars would cease. The swords will be beaten into ploughshares and the spears into pruning-hooks ( Isaiah 2:4). There will be no sword or battle-din. There will be a common law for all men and a great peace throughout the earth, and king will be friendly with king (Sibylline Oracles 3: 751-760).
(iv) One of the loveliest ideas concerning the new age was that in it there would be no more enmity between the beasts or between man and the beasts. The leopard and the kid, the cow and the bear, the lion and the falling will play and lie down together ( Isaiah 11:6-9; Isaiah 65:25). There will be a new covenant between man and the beasts of the field ( Hosea 2:18). Even a child will be able to play where the poisonous reptiles have their holes and their dens ( Isaiah 11:6-9; Isaiah 2:1-22 Baruch Isa 73:6). In all nature there will be a universal reign of friendship in which none will wish to do another any harm.
(v) The coming age will bring the end of weariness, of sorrow and of pain. The people will not sorrow any more ( Jeremiah 31:12); everlasting joy will be upon their heads ( Isaiah 35:10). There will be no such thing as an untimely death ( Isaiah 65:20-22); no man will say: "I am sick" ( Isaiah 33:24); death will be swallowed up in victory and God will wipe tears from all faces ( Isaiah 25:8). Disease will withdraw; anxiety, anguish and lamentation will pass away; childbirth will have no pain; the reaper will not grow weary and the builder will not be toilworn (Baruch 73:2-74:4). The age to come will be one when what Virgil called "the tears of things" will be no more.
(vi) The age to come will be an age of righteousness. There will be perfect holiness among men. Mankind will be a good generation, living in the fear of the Lord in the days of mercy (Wis 17:28-49; Wis_18:9-10 ).
The Revelation is the New Testament representative of all these apocalyptic works which tell of the terrors before the end of time and of the blessings of the age to come; and it uses all the familiar imagery. It may often be difficult and even unintelligible to us, but for the most part it was using pictures and ideas which those who read it would know and understand.
The Author Of The Revelation
(i) The Revelation was written by a man called John. He begins by saying that God sent the visions he is going to relate to his servant John ( Revelation 1:1). He begins the body of his book by saying that it is from John to the Seven Churches in Asia ( Revelation 1:4). He speaks of himself as John the brother and companion in tribulation of those to whom he writes ( Revelation 1:9). "I John," he says, "am he who heard and saw these things" ( Revelation 22:8).
(ii) This John was a Christian who lived in Asia in the same sphere as the Christians of the Seven Churches. He calls himself the brother of those to whom he writes; and he says he too shares in the tribulations through which they are passing ( Revelation 1:9).
(iii) He was most probably a Jew of Palestine who had come to Asia Minor late in life. We can deduce that from the kind of Greek he writes. It is vivid, powerful, and pictorial; but from the point of view of grammar it is easily the worst Greek in the New Testament. He makes mistakes which no schoolboy who knew Greek could make. Greek is certainly not his native language; and it is often clear that he is writing in Greek and thinking in Hebrew. He is steeped in the Old Testament. He quotes it or alludes to it 245 times. These quotations come from about twenty Old Testament books; his favourites are Isaiah, Daniel, Ezekiel, Psalms, Exodus, Jeremiah, Zechariah. Not only does he know the Old Testament intimately; he is also familiar with the apocalyptic books written between the Testaments.
(iv) His claim for himself is that he is a prophet, and it is on that fact that he rests his right to speak. The command of the Risen Christ to him is that he must prophesy ( Revelation 10:11). It is through the spirit of prophecy that Jesus gives his witness to the Church ( Revelation 19:10). God is the God of the holy prophets and sends his angel to show his servants what is going to happen in the world ( Revelation 22:6). The angel speaks to him of his brothers the prophets ( Revelation 22:9). His book is characteristically prophecy or the words of prophecy ( Revelation 22:7; Revelation 22:10; Revelation 22:18-19).
It is here that John's authority lies. He does not call himself an apostle, as Paul does when he wishes to underline his right to speak. He has no "official" or administrative position in the Church; he is a prophet. He writes what he sees; and since what he sees comes from God, his word is faithful and true ( Revelation 1:11; Revelation 1:19).
When John was writing, the prophets had a very special place in the Church. He was writing, as we shall see, about A.D. 90. By that time the Church had two kinds of ministry. There was the local ministry; those engaged in it were settled permanently in one congregation, the elders, the deacons and the teachers. And there was the itinerant ministry of those whose sphere of labour was not confined to any one congregation. In it were the apostles, whose writ ran throughout the whole Church; and there were the prophets, who were wandering preachers. The prophets were greatly respected; to question the words of a true prophet was to sin against the Holy Spirit, the Didache says ( Revelation 11:7). The accepted order of service for the celebration of the Eucharist is laid down in the Didache, but at the end comes the sentence: "But allow the prophets to hold the Eucharist as they will" ( Revelation 10:7). The prophets were regarded as uniquely the men of God, and John was a prophet.
(v) It is not likely that he was an apostle. Otherwise he would hardly have so stressed the fact that he was a prophet. Further, he speaks of the apostles as if he was looking back on them as the great foundations of the Church. He speaks of the twelve foundations of the wall of the Holy City and then says, "and on them were the twelve names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb" ( Revelation 21:14). He would scarcely have spoken of the apostles like that if he himself was one of them.
This conclusion is rendered even more likely by the title of the book. In the King James and English Revised Versions it is called The Revelation of St. John the Divine. In the Revised Standard Version and in Moffatt's and in J. B. Phillips' translations the Divine is omitted, because it is absent from the majority of the oldest Greek manuscripts; but it does go very far back. The Greek is theologos ( G2312 ') and the word is here used in the sense in which we speak of "the Puritan divines" and means, not John the saintly but John the theologian; and the very addition of that title seems to distinguish this John from the John who was the apostle.
As long ago as A.D. 250 Dionysius, the great scholar who was head of the Christian school at Alexandria, saw that it was well nigh impossible that the same man could have written the Revelation and the Fourth Gospel, if for no other reason than that the Greek is so different. The Greek of the Fourth Gospel is simple but correct; the Greek of the Revelation is rugged and vivid, but notoriously incorrect. Further, the writer of the Fourth Gospel studiously avoids any mention of his own name; the John of the Revelation repeatedly mentions it. Still further, the ideas of the two books are different. The great ideas of the Fourth Gospel, light, life, truth and grace, do not dominate the Revelation. At the same time there are enough resemblances in thought and language to make it clear that both books come from the same centre and from the same world of thought.
The Date Of The Revelation
We have two sources which enable us to fix the date.
(i) There is the account which tradition gives to us. The consistent tradition is that John was banished to Patmos in the time of Domitian; that he saw his visions there; at the death of Domitian was liberated and came back to Ephesus; and there set down the visions he had seen. Victorinus, who wrote towards the end of the third century A.D., says in his commentary on the Revelation: "John, when he saw these things, was in the island of Patmos, condemned to the mines by Domitian the Emperor. There, therefore, he saw the revelation... When he was afterwards set free from the mines, he handed down this revelation which he had received from God." Jerome is even more detailed: "In the fourteenth year after the persecution of Nero, John was banished to the island of Patmos, and there wrote the Revelation... Upon the death of Domitian, and upon the repeal of his acts by the senate, because of their excessive cruelty, he returned to Ephesus, when Nerva was emperor." Eusebius says: "The apostle and evangelist John related these things to the Churches, when he had returned from exile in the island after the death of Domitian." Tradition makes it certain that John saw his visions in exile in Patmos; the only thing that is doubtful--and it is not important--is whether he wrote them down during the time of his banishment or when he returned to Ephesus. On this evidence we will not be wrong if we date the Revelation about A.D. 95.
(ii) The second line of evidence is the material in the book. There is a completely new attitude to Rome and to the Roman Empire.
In Acts the tribunal of the Roman magistrate was often the safest refuge of the Christian missionaries against the hatred of the Jews and the fury of the mob. Paul was proud that he was a Roman citizen and again and again claimed the rights to which every Roman citizen was entitled. In Philippi he brought the local magistrates to heel by revealing his citizenship ( Acts 16:36-40). In Corinth Gallio dismissed the complaints against him with impartial Roman justice ( Acts 18:1-17). In Ephesus the Roman authorities were careful for his safety against the rioting mob ( Acts 19:13-41). In Jerusalem the Roman tribune rescued him from what might have become a lynching ( Acts 21:30-40). When the Roman tribune in Jerusalem heard that there was to be an attempt on Paul's lift on the way to Caesarea, he took every possible step to ensure his safety ( Acts 23:12-31). When Paul despaired of justice in Palestine, he exercised his right as a citizen and appealed direct to Caesar ( Acts 25:10-11). When he wrote to the Romans, he urged upon them obedience to the powers that be, because they were ordained by God and were a terror only to the evil, and not to the good ( Romans 13:1-7). Peter's advice is exactly the same. Governors and kings are to be obeyed, for their task is given them by God. It is a Christian's duty to fear God and honour the emperor ( 1 Peter 2:12-17). In writing to the Thessalonians it is likely that Paul points to the power of Rome as the one thing which is controlling the threatening chaos of the world ( 2 Thessalonians 2:7).
In the Revelation there is nothing but blazing hatred for Rome. Rome is a Babylon, the mother of harlots, drunk with the blood of the saints and the martyrs ( Revelation 17:5-6). John hopes for nothing but her total destruction.
The explanation of this change in attitude lies in the wide development of Caesar worship which, with its accompanying persecution, is the background of the Revelation.
By the time of the Revelation Caesar worship was the one religion which covered the whole Roman Empire; and it was because of their refusal to conform to its demands that Christians were persecuted and killed. Its essence was that the reigning Roman Emperor, as embodying the spirit of Rome, was divine. Once a year everyone in the Empire had to appear before the magistrates to burn a pinch of incense to the god-head of Caesar and to say: "Caesar is Lord." After he had done that, a man might go away and worship any god or goddess he liked, so long as that worship did not infringe decency and good order; but he must go through this ceremony in which he acknowledged the Emperor's divinity.
The reason was very simple. Rome had a vast heterogeneous empire, stretching from one end of the known world to another. It had in it many tongues, races and traditions. The problem was how to weld this varied mass into a self-conscious unity. There is no unifying force like that of a common religion but none of the national religions could conceivably have become universal. Caesar worship could. It was the one common act and belief which turned the Empire into a unity. To refuse to burn the pinch of incense and to say: "Caesar is Lord," was not an act of irreligion; it was an act of political disloyalty. That is why the Romans dealt with the utmost severity with the man who would not say: "Caesar is Lord." And no Christian could give the title Lord to any other than Jesus Christ. This was the centre of his creed.
We must see how this Caesar worship developed and how it was at its peak when the Revelation was written
One basic fact must be noted. Caesar worship was not imposed on the people from above. It arose from the people; it might even be said that it arose in spite of efforts by the early emperors to stop it, or at least to curb it. And it is to be noted that of all the people in the Empire only the Jews were exempt from it.
Caesar worship began as a spontaneous outburst of gratitude to Rome. The people of the provinces well knew what they owed to Rome. Impartial Roman justice had taken the place of capricious and tyrannical oppression. Security had taken the place of insecurity. The great Roman roads spanned the world; and the roads were safe from brigands and the seas were clear of pirates. The pax Romana, the Roman peace, was the greatest thing which ever happened to the ancient world. As Virgil had it, Rome felt her destiny to be "to spare the fallen and to cast down the proud." Life had a new order about it. E. J. Goodspeed writes: "This was the pax Romana. The provincial under Roman sway found himself in a position to conduct his business, provide for his family, send his letters, and make his journeys in security, thanks to the strong hand of Rome."
Caesar worship did not begin with the deification of the Emperor. It began with the deification of Rome. The spirit of the Empire was deified under the name of the goddess Roma. Roma stood for all the strong and benevolent power of the Empire. The first temple to Roma was erected in Smyrna as far back as 195 B.C. It was no great step to think of the spirit of Rome being incarnated in one man, the Emperor. The worship of the Emperor began with the worship of Julius Caesar after his death. In 29 B.C. the Emperor Augustus granted to the provinces of Asia and Bithynia permission to erect temples in Ephesus and Nicaea for the joint worship of the goddess Roma and the deified Julius Caesar. At these shrines Roman citizens were encouraged and even exhorted to worship. Then another step was taken. To provincials who were not Roman citizens Augustus gave permission to erect temples in Pergamum in Asia and in Nicomedia in Bithynia, for the worship of Roma and himself. At first the worship of the reigning Emperor was considered to be something permissible for provincial non-citizens, but not for those who had the dignity of the citizenship.
There was an inevitable development. It is human to worship a god who can be seen rather than a spirit. Gradually men began more and more to worship the Emperor himself instead of the goddess Roma. It still required special permission from the senate to erect a temple to the living Emperor, but by the middle of the first century that permission was more and more freely given. Caesar worship was becoming the universal religion of the Roman Empire. A priesthood developed and the worship was organized into presbyteries, whose officials were held in the highest honour.
This worship was never intended to wipe out other religions. Rome was essentially tolerant. A man might worship Caesar and his own god. But more and more Caesar worship became a test of political loyalty; it became, as has been said, the recognition of the dominion of Caesar over a man's life and soul. Let us, then trace the development of this worship up to, and immediately beyond, the writing of the Revelation.
(i) Augustus, who died in A.D. 14, allowed the worship of Julius Caesar, his great predecessor. He allowed non-citizens in the provinces to worship himself but he did not permit citizens to do so; and he made no attempt to enforce this worship.
(ii) Tiberius (A.D. 14-37) could not halt Caesar worship. He forbade temples to be built and priests to be appointed for his own worship; and in a letter to Gython, a Laconian city, he definitely refused divine honours for himself. So far from enforcing Caesar worship, he actively discouraged it.
(iii) Caligula (A.D. 37-41), the next Emperor, was an epileptic, a madman and a megalomaniac. He insisted on divine honours. He attempted to enforce Caesar worship even on the Jews, who had always been and who always were to remain exempt from it. He planned to place his own image in the Holy of Holies in the Temple in Jerusalem, a step which would certainly have provoked unyielding rebellion. Mercifully he died before he could carry out his plans. But in his reign we have an episode when Caesar worship became an imperial demand.
(iv) Caligula was succeeded by Claudius (A.D. 41-54) who completely reversed his insane policy. He wrote to the governor of Egypt--there were a million Jews in Alexandria--fully approving the Jewish refusal to call the Emperor a god and granting them full liberty to enjoy their own worship. On his accession to the throne, he wrote to Alexandria saying: "I deprecate the appointment of a High Priest to me and the erection of temples, for I do not wish to be offensive to my contemporaries, and I hold that sacred fanes and the like have been by all ages attributed to the immortal gods as peculiar honours."
(v) Nero (A.D. 54-68) did not take his own divinity seriously and did nothing to insist on Caesar worship. It is true that he persecuted the Christians; but this was not because they would not worship him, but because he had to find scapegoats for the great fire of Rome.
(vi) On the death of Nero there were three Emperors in eighteen months--Galba, Otto and Vitellius, and in such a time of chaos the question of Caesar worship did not arise.
(vii) The next two Emperors, Vespasian (A.D. 69-79) and Titus (A.D. 79-81), were wise rulers, who made no insistence on Caesar worship.
(viii) The coming of Domitian (A.D. 81-96) brought a complete change. He was a devil. He was the worst of all things--a cold-blooded persecutor. With the exception of Caligula, he in as the first Emperor to take his divinity seriously and to demand Caesar worship. The difference was that Caligula was an insane devil; Domitian was a sane devil, which is much more terrifying. He erected a monument to "the deified Titus son of the deified Vespasian." He began a campaign of bitter persecution against all who would not worship the ancient gods--"the atheists" as he called them. In particular he launched his hatred against the Jews and the Christians. When he arrived in the theatre with his empress, the crowd were urged to rise and shout: "All hail to our Lord and his Lady!" He enacted that he himself was a god. He informed all provincial governors that government announcements and proclamations must begin: "Our Lord and God Domitian commands..." Everyone who addressed him in speech or in writing must begin: "Lord and God."
Here is the background of the Revelation. All over the Empire men and women must call Domitian god--or die. Caesar worship was the deliberate policy; all must say: "Caesar is Lord." There was no escape.
What were the Christians to do? What hope had they? They had not many wise and not many mighty. They had no influence or prestige. Against them had risen the might of Rome which no nation had ever resisted. They were confronted with the choice--Caesar or Christ. It was to encourage men in such times that the Revelation was written. John did not shut his eyes to the terrors; he saw dreadful things and he saw still more dreadful things on the way; but beyond them he saw glory for those who defied Caesar for the love of Christ. The Revelation comes from one of the most heroic ages in all the history of the Christian Church. It is true that Domitian's successor Nerva (A.D. 96-98) repealed the savage laws; but the damage was done, the Christians were outlaws, and the Revelation is a clarion call to be faithful unto death in order to win the crown of life.
The Book Worth Studying
No one can shut his eyes to the difficulty of the Revelation. It is the most difficult book in the Bible; but it is infinitely worth studying, for it contains the blazing faith of the Christian Church in the days when life was an agony and men expected the end of the heavens and the earth as they knew them but still believed that beyond the terror was the glory and above the raging of men was the power of God.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)
Eve of Ascension