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16. The early church

16-1 A Taste Of The First Century: The Positive : 16-1-1 " With one accord" || 16-1-2 The Early Church Our Example || 16-1-3 Prayer Meetings || 16-1-4 Christ-centredness || 16-1-5 Radical Preaching || 16-1-6 Women In The Early Church || 16-1-7 The Joy Of Faith || 16-2 A Taste Of The First Century: The Negative: 16-2-1 Division In The Church || 16-2-2 Politics In The Church || 16-3 Unity And Division In The First Century : 16-3-1 Unity And Division In The First Century Church || 16-3-2 Oikonomia And Household Fellowships || 16-3-3 Rich And Poor In The First Century || 16-3-4 Unity In The Church || 16-4 The Obstacles : 16-4-1 The Obstacles To The Growth Of Christianity || 16-4-2 The offence of the cross || 16-4-3 The rejection of Caesar || 16-4-4 Women And Slaves In The First Century || 16-4-5 The Roman Empire And Christianity || 16-4-6 The Attraction Of Judaism || 16-4-7 Other First Century Objections To Christianity || 16-5 How They Succeeded: 16-5-1 Why Christianity Spread In The First Century  || 16-5-2 The Example Of The Community || 16-5-3 House Meetings In The First Century || 16-5-4 Witness In The Workplace || 16-5-5 The Witness Of Christian Unity In The First Century || 16-5-6 The Role Of Women   In The First Century || 16-5-7 Style Of PreachingIn The First Century || 16-5-8 Christian Ethics In The First Century || 16-5-9 The Exclusivity Of Christianity || 16-5-10 Early Christian Doctrine || 16-6 Where Things Went Wrong: 16-6-1 Doctrinal Apostacy || 16-6-2 The Rise Of Traditions || 16-6-3 Legalism In The Church || 16-6-4 Social Tensions In The Church || 16-6-5 Wealth In The Church || 16-6-6 Worldliness In The Church || 16-6-7 Lost Emphasis Upon Grace || 16-6-8 Loss Of Faith In The Church || 16-6-9 Poor Church Leadership || 16-6-10 Dogmatism And Legalists


16-4-3 The rejection of Caesar

The whole idea of “the Kingdom of God” was revolutionary- there was to be no other Kingdom spoken of apart from Caesar’s. But our brethren preached the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. And those who openly accepted these principles were inevitably persecuted- expelled from the trade guilds, not worked with, socially shunned, their children discriminated against. David Bosch observes: “Christians confessed Jesus as Lord of all lords- the most revolutionary political demonstration imaginable in the Roman Empire”. It has even been shown that in Nero’s time it was forbidden for Christians to use Imperial coinage, with its  images of Caesar as Lord. It was in this sense impossible to buy or sell unless one was willing to accept the mark of the beast- exactly as in Rev. 13:17. The next verse goes on to identify the number of the beast / man as being 666. And yet this is the sum of the Hebrew letters in ‘Neron Caesar’! Whatever other application these verses may be seen to have to Catholic persecution, there can be little doubt that their first century context applies to the persecution of the early converts. Later, Domitian demanded that he be worshipped as Lord and God, " Dominus et deus noster" (Suetonius, Domitiani Vita, 13.4). John records how Thomas called the Lord Jesus “my lord and my God”, in active opposition to this. One couldn’t worship Caesar and the Lord Jesus. The Lord Himself had foreseen this when He warned that His followers couldn’t serve two masters. Domitian demanded to be called ‘Master’, but this was impossible for the Christian. Indeed, much of Revelation seems taken up with this theme of the first century refusal to worship the Caesars and deified Roman empire on pain of persecution (Rev. 13:4; 14:9,11; 16:2; 19:20). “Following the Neronian persecution, being a Christian was tantamount to being part of a criminal conspiracy, and Christians (unlike other religious groups) were punished simply for being Christians (Tacitus Annals 15.44.5; Pliny Letters 10.96.2-3). Their crime was an unwillingness to worship any God but their own, an exclusiveness the Greeks labelled " atheism." The refusal to sacrifice to pagan gods and on behalf of deified emperors was perceived as a threat to the harmonious relationship between people and the gods” (1). There are also several word plays upon and indirect allusions to Caesar worship in Revelation. Rev. 9:11 is an example- the condemned King of the bottomless pit is called "Apollyon", which G.B. Caird takes to be an allusion to Domitian, "who liked to be regarded as Apollo incarnate" (2).

Although in many parts of the 21st century world the tension between the believer and the beast is not articulated so starkly, the essential realities of the conflict remain, and must be felt by us. The radical, heretical nature of the book of Revelation needs to be appreciated against this background; it's almost a polemic against the Caesars, and to speak in this way against them was punishable by death. And Revelation speaks of the capital of the beast system (Rome) as being in the wilderness, rather than as the (perceived) centre of a chique, cosmopolitan metropolis. And of course, Rome is spoken of as a whore... the most abusive image possible! The whole vision was given "on the Lord's say" (Rev. 1:10)- and this appears to be an allusion to the way that there was "a day in the Roman calendar when all the Roman citizens had to go to the local temple and declare 'Caesar is Lord'" (3). On that very day, when John was supposed to be worshipping Caesar as Lord, he was given a vision outlining how Caesar was not in fact 'Lord' at all.

The Roman emperors and Greek heroes sometimes traced their pedigree back to a god- and therefore the genealogies of Jesus we find in Matthew and Luke were quite radical in this regard. For they traced the pedigree of Jesus back to God- as if He were the emperor (4).


(1) J.L. Mays,  Editor, Harper’s Bible Commentary (New York: Harper and Row, 1988).

(2) G.B. Caird, The Revelation Of St. John The Divine (London: Black, 1966) p. 120.

(3) Thomas Gaston, Come And See: An Exposition Of Revelation (Hyderabad, India: Printland, 2007) p. 37.

(4) R.T. Hood has powerfully demonstrated how the genealogies of Jesus would have been seen as revolutionary and subversive to the emperor cult. See his chapter 'The genealogies of Jesus' in A. Wikgren, ed., Early Christian Origins (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1961) pp. 1-13.