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"
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.