If ever there was going to be a text in the NT where one could talk about an anti-imperial rhetoric and coded language, Revelation is that text. And for the record, I think there is a critique of abusive rulers, and empire in this book. There is also a critique of rulers who insist on idolatry in this book. We may want to ask then, why the sea change from what we find in our earliest NT documents (Paul’s letters), and even for the most part what we find in the Gospels and Acts, to what we find in Revelation? The answer is that the social situation is different for Christians specifically. When John of Patmos writes, he writes as a person likely sent into exile by governing officials in Ephesus. He writes to congregations who have suffered pressure, some persecution, and in the case of Antipas, an execution. He writes in the wake of the living memory of Christians in Rome being executed for crimes they did not commit. He writes at a time when Domitian was ruling, demanding that he be called deus et dominus noster, and increasingly being seen as the bad Nero’s reincarnation, at least by Christians. The social situation in the 90s was worlds different than in the 60s or even 70s for Christians. We are swiftly headed for loyalty tests for Christians with some regularity in the western provinces in what we call Turkey today. We see this in Pliny, and elsewhere. The Empire now knows Christians are not simply weird Jews, not least because most of them are Gentiles. Nevertheless, as Rev. 2-3 makes clear, the problems for Christians are as likely to be caused by local Jews turning them in to the authorities, as by pagans.
Nevertheless, John’s critique has to do with the usual Jewish critiques of pagans– they are guilty of idolatry, and they are guilty of the abuse of their power. It is not at all clear that John goes so far as to simply say human authorities of any sort, no matter how they wield power, are evil. The fact that human institutions can fall into the clutches of Satan doesn’t mean they are inherently that way. And make no mistake, John believes there is a supernatural being called Satan who has fallen from heaven to earth, is angry with Christians, but his doom is sure. He does not identify Satan AS Mr. 666, but he sees the latter as a minion of Satan.
In any case, John is counseling Christians not to lead a protest movement,but to be prepared for martyrdom, and leave the judging of empires and abusers and idolaters in Jesus’ hands. He will be the one who judges the world, not Christians.
Dwight Sheets provides the closing main essay in this volume. Sheets is absolutely right that there is a big change in what is said about government in Revelation compared to all other NT writings. Nothing like Rom. 13 or 1 Pet. 2 can be found here. But does he provide a paradigm for resistance to all empires, whatever their ilk?
One of the real problems with anti-imperial criticism, which it shares with post-colonial and some radical feminist criticism of the NT is that it is assumed that all hierarchies, perhaps especially including governmental ones are inherently evil, fallen structures. The problem with this whole line of approach is that it is not the view of any NT writer! Indeed, their view of humans worshiping God truly, including the worship of the Lord Jesus, and their view of the coming kingdom is inherently hierarchial in character. It does involve a Lord and his servants! It is just a different hierarchy. It is not a gender or class or ethnic group or social status based hierarchy. It is a divine-human hierarchy, and within the faith community it is also a leader- follower hierarchy. There are after all, apostles, prophets, teachers, apostolic co-workers etc. who lead the faithful. It is a leadership paradigm modeled on Christ the servant, and servant leadership is not an oxymoron in the Christian community. But make no mistake— while leaders would rather persuade than command or fire off imperatives, they will if need be do otherwise. As was the case with Jesus himself, leadership sometimes requires making demands. In other words, modern radically democratic readings of the NT do not work. The Kingdom of God is a Kingdom, not a democracy. And secondly, radically egalitarian readings of the NT which rule out any sorts of hierarchies of any kind do not comport with what the NT writers believed and taught.
While I think Sheets analysis of Revelation is basically on target, his contention that John believed the return of Christ was necessarily near at hand, and the Empire was soon going to strike out, is I think not sufficiently nuanced. John uses the thief in the night metaphor just as we find it elsewhere in the NT, to refer to the return of Christ. This metaphor means that Christ will come at an unknown time. No date setting allowed. It could be soon, it could be later, and so Christians must live with great expectations, but without definite prognostications, and John is not making the mistake of setting times and dates. Possible imminence is all he is warning of. Part of the problem of course is the misinterpretation of the phrase ‘en taxei’ ‘Behold, I am coming en taxei’ says the exalted Jesus. This Greek phrase (from which we get the English word taxi, which literally means quick) when modifying a verb is adverbial in character. While it can sometimes be translated soon, if the context supports such a reading, its basic meaning is ‘with speed’ or quickly or with dispatch. It tells HOW he will come, not when he will come (see my Jesus, Paul, and the End of the World). So its time to stop saying or implying ‘those poor early Christians, they made the mistake of going for the eschatological jackpot of predicting Jesus would come back soon, and bless their hearts, they were wrong. This was of course Schweitzer’s view of Jesus himself. And it is wrong, and has plagued the NT interpretation of eschatological texts ever since the early 20th century. One caveat to this. Jesus does warn he will come and judge a recalcitrant church sooner rather than later if need be (I stand at the door and knock). This is not a reference to the physical second coming of Christ. It is a reference to an interim not final judgment that happens before the end of days begins to be set in motion by the unsealing of the seals.
So in the case of Revelation we really do have an audience that is pressured, persecuted, prosecuted even has a martyr or two. Even so, oppressive rule is not the focal concern of Revelation. Being faithful to God and not committing apostasy in spite of social problems is the focus. Revelation is about get ready to suffer, not get ready to rumble.
Interestingly, Sheets (pp. 201-03) seems to follow Leonard Thompson in suggesting that things were more peace in Asia Minor than sometimes asserted in the 90s, and that Domitian was not more likely to demand divine honors than other Emperors. I think Thompson is wrong, especially about the end of Domitian’s reign which really does contrast with Trajan’s in some respects. He is right however that Asia was a center of the imperial cult, and had been for some time. It is interesting then that John’s focus is not on judgment falling on, say, Ephesus, or anywhere else in Asia, but rather on Rome/Babylon itself, the epicenter of the problem. Sheets takes the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, as one of John’s key indicators that the end is at hand. The problem with this is that John says nothing about the Jerusalem temple. He does suggest that martyrdom had gone on in Jerusalem of prophets, but nothing about the temple per se in Revelation. This may in part be because he wrote long after 70 A.D., but in any case his silence on the subject suggests he does not necessarily closely connect the fall of the Temple in Jerusalem with the return of Christ. Partly this comes from a misreading of Mark 13 in the first place. Jesus himself said even he didn’t know when the Son of Man would be coming. That should have put an end to theological weather forecasting that involves date setting. And as a footnote, since there has been an one hundred per cent failure in the last 2,000 years of all such predictions, it is well past time to realize NO ONE KNOWS. And when there is no fixed date, one cannot talk about a ‘delay of the parousia’ and so Sheets is wrong again when he says John is adjusting to the ‘delay’ (pp. 206-07).
Sheets conclusion that John was mainly concerned about how recent events signaled the soon coming of Christ, and he wanted his churches ready (see p. 209), is frankly not correct. He is right that worshipping the Emperor is not his main concern. His main concern is that his audience not commit apostasy and remain faithful even if they are martyred, regardless of what sort of trials and temptations they face. In other words, John is a pastor with ecclesiological concerns as Rev. 2-3 make clear, not an eschatological date setter warning Jesus is coming soon, be prepared. You will notice that what conquering means to John (nikao) is faithful to Christ unto death, not faithful until his soon return. The victors may be physically vanquished by their oppressors, but spiritually, as John say, they will be preserved unto everlasting life. It is after all the martyrs under the altar in Revelation, the ones who has washed their robes in blood (7.14-15) having come through the tribulation faithfully and been martyred, it is those who have been beheaded (Rev. 20) who are held up as examples to John’s audience. Revelation is the book of the martyrs, who follow Jesus to the cross and beyond. It is not the book of date setting of a near return of Jesus. The concern negatively is about any form of apostasy whether idolatry or immorality, and positively perseverance unto death as need be.
In the Foreword to this book Andy Crouch sums up ably the net effect of most of the arguments in this book—” After all the scholarly examination is done, even with a stiff tailwind of intellectual fashion propelling the quest for signs of anti-imperial sentiment, it seems that the only fair conclusion is that there is a surprisingly small place in the New Testament writers’ attention for denunciation of Caesar, explicit or otherwise. When the clerk at Ephesus says ‘They are neither temple-robbers nor blasphemers of our goddess’ he is simply telling the truth– even though the proclamation of Christ surely would put an end to the legitimacy of idols like Artemis and put her temple out of business sooner or later (in the timescale of history,it turned out to be sooner). The way of Jesus’ first followers was not to blaspheme Artemis or to denounce Caesar– it was to proclaim Jesus.” (p. 13). Exactly, and as Crouch adds, we are placed in this world not to condemn the world but to exalt Christ. We are to render unto Caesar his just due, no less, no more, and if he aspires to idolatry and immorality it should be critiqued, but not become the focus of the proclamation which is the positive message of what Jesus is, not what Caesar is not. Though empires come and go, rise and fall, Christ’s kingdom shall never perish, indeed it will never cease to grow until he does return.