How to Read the Book of Revelation for All Its Worth

I think there is a good possibility that evangelical pastors could end up in jail for preaching on the Biblical case for marriage within the next twenty years.  If radical activists get their way, America could go the way of Canada and have a Commission set up with the responsibility to sniff out “hate speech” wherever it may be.

If that happens what does a guy like with a  family to support do? Moreover, I’m a wimp! I don’t even feel comfortable in a Hampton Inn the coach section of an airplane (in my defense I have a lot of miles, get a lot of upgrades and being in first class is a lot better!).  Believe it or not, the answer lies in the Book of Revelation, which is typically obsessed over and abused or wholly ignored by Christians.

In order to read the last book of the Bible for all its worth you have to understand the symbolism, which is drawn from the culture of the time in which it was written.  Many scholars believe Revelation was written during the reign of the Roman Emperor Domitian who ruled from 81-96 A.D..

But first we need to back up a bit–from the time of the enthronement of Augustus in 27 B.C., emperors were worshipped in certain Roman cities as gods on earth (basically to suck up!). In fact, at the time Augustus came to power, his adopted father Julius was also declared to be a god and, therefore, Augustus was referred to as “the son of God.” Coins were even minted stating things like, “There is no name save Augustus by which men can be saved.”  Augustus was apparently embarrassed by this and didn’t take it too seriously.

Nonetheless, Jews referred to those who accepted such worship as subhuman or “beasts.”  So, when certain cities like Ephesus set up shrines to Caesar at the entrance to the marketplace where you could offer incense and utter the phrase “Caesar is Lord” as an oath of loyalty the question for Jews (and later Christians) was whether or not to take “the mark of the beast.”

This especially became an issue when Domitian became emperor because, unlike Augustus, he took his proclaimed divinity seriously.  So, to refuse to worship Domitian could mean the loss of your livelihood or even your life! I believe this is the question that prompted the writing of the Book of Revelation.

Now you have to understand just what kind of beast Domitian was.  For example: Domitian commanded his own wife to call him, “My lord and my god” (she later conspired to murder him!); he opened all of his letters with, “Your lord and god commands you…”; At one point, he ordered all statutes at one point to be made only of solid gold (until funds ran a little dry); He had a priestess who offended him buried alive on the spot and he had a heckler at the gladiatorial games immediately fed to the lions for mocking his favorite gladiator! Real sweetheart, huh?

Now let’s get to where all of this meets the Book of Revelation.  Consider the following, when Domitian made royal appearances he was accompanied by a choir of 24 singing “our lord and our god…you are worthy to receive honor, glory and power” (See Rev. 4:10-11).

Domitian launched the creatively entitled, “Domitian Games” and He would begin the ceremonies by sitting on a large throne and having the governors of the various Roman provinces come before him.  Domitian would then begin by commending certain actions by saying, “I have this for you…” and then list any action that offended him by saying, “I have this against you…” and then he would sometimes state that if they did not rectify certain situations he would come and take their power from them (See Rev. 2:1-7).

Then the crowds at the games would begin to worship Domitian.  The worshipers had to be dressed in white or they were not allowed to participate.  The priests leading the worship were dressed in white and wore gold crowns inscribed with the various names given to Caesar and they would lead the crowds in singing, “worthy are you to receive honor and glory and power” while laying down their crowns before Domitian (Rev. 4:10-11 again).

One of the highlights of the Domitian Games was a horse race between horses of four different colors and after the horse race (and other games) a slave wearing the mask of Hades, the master of death, would come onto the field and drag the bodies off (See Revelation 6:1-8).

Domitian also had statues commissioned where he is holding a scroll.  The scroll was said to contain all the rights of Caesar and only the emperor was “worthy” to hold and open the scroll (see Revelation 5:1-14).

Domitian’s father was the emperor Vespasian (ruled from 69-79 AD).  He was a Roman General charged with subjugating Judea in 66.  A few interpreters have argued he suffered what many believed was a fatal head wound but somehow recovered (Rev. 13:1-4).  Many scholars believe Vespasian “healed” the wound of Rome, which had seemingly suffered a fatal blow upon the death of Nero for Vespasian was the first strong Caesar after year of absolute chaos with various generals vying for the throne.

Vespasian had built a large platform in Ephesus. Domitian enlarged it placing his temple and statue over the gods of the Greco-Roman pantheon. It was known as the Neokoros and could be seen for miles.

When Domitian would visit his beloved temple (and others such a the one at Pergamum), the citizens (and members of every guild) would come out to meet him and escort him into the city (1 Thess. 4:13-18).  He would go from altar to altar and the crowd was expect to bow to him at that time until they reached the Temple.  If you refused to bow you would stand out and expect Domitian to do what?

But many members of this new revolutionary sect known as “People of the way” or derogatorily referred to as “Christians” refused to participate.  Although those who argued that it was okay to worship the emperor at the Neokoras as long your intent was just to safe your life were known as “Nicolatians” (Rev. 2:6).

Domitian decided to deal with the recognized leader of this sect in the hopes that the group would just fall apart.  He knew better than to kill the leader because he didn’t want to make him a martyr, so he exiled him to the island of Patmos. The leader had been known as the “disciple whom Jesus loved” who was then in his nineties and was known as “John the elder.”  In exile, he wrote a letter with the essential point being, “I have seen THE throne of the universe and Domitian ain’t sitting on it!

John assured the people facing the decision whether to worship Domitian or not that every Caesar who claimed divinity and this habit of dying and staying dead while King Jesus lived! This King sits on a throne with real power and will make all things right one day (Revelation 21) but considers all those loyal to Him even unto death as “conquerors” and “faithful witnesses.” So, the message is don’t take the mark and don’t compromise but worship Jesus and Jesus only.  We are not to place anything in the place of God whether it is sex, money, fame, romance, family, comfort or power for whatever is most important to you is your God.  We are to have only one God–the Father, Son and Spirit.  That was and is the point of the Book of Revelation.

Come Lord Jesus.

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UPDATE: A number of people have asked for references for the claims above.  I have spent the last 15 years teaching Revelation and have slowly compiled my teaching notes from a number of references.  Here are a few worth your time and money:

Revelation 1-5Revelation 6-16 and Revelation 17-22 by David Aune

The Theology of the Book of Revelation by Richard Bauckham

The Book of Revelation by G.K. Beale

The Revelation of St. John by G.B. Caird

Backgrounds of Early Christianity by Everett Ferguson

The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in Their Local Setting by Colin Hemer

The Greco-Roman World of the New Testament Era: Exploring the Background of Early Christianity by James Jeffers

The Emperor Domitian by Brian Jones.

Josephus: The Complete Works (see esp. his chapters on the Jewish Wars especially the siege of Yodfat)

Apocalypse and Allegiance: Worship, Politics, and Devotion in the Book of Revelation by Nelson Kraybill

Imperial Cult and Commerce in John’s Apocalypse by Nelson Kraybill

The Book of Revelation by Robert Mounce

Christ and the Caesars by Ethelbert Stauffer

The Twelve Caesars by Suetonius

The Roman Imperial Army of the First and Second Centuries A.D. by Graham Webster

Revelation by Ben Witherington III

Jesus and the Victory of God by N.T. Wright

The New Testament and the People of God by N.T. Wright

The Resurrection of the Son of God by N.T. Wright

I will continue to update as time permits.