Rome and Empire: What does the Bible say about empire? Justice#9

Rome and Empire: What does the Bible say about empire? Justice#9 March 3, 2021

Many efforts to discuss justice and the church fail to account for the biblical view of empire. In my view, this is a serious mistake with a multitude of repercussions.

When it comes to applying the biblical view of justice to our current contexts I would contend that we have three hurdles to overcome:

  • We often have a poor conception of the empires behind the biblical world. I addressed this in my last post.
  • We have a poor conception of the biblical view of empire. Not simply what does the Bible say about Egypt, Babylon, or Rome, but what does it say about empire itself? This will be the subject of this post.
  • Finally, our failures in 1 & 2 often facilitate a distorted view of our own empires. This will be the subject of future posts.

But what is the biblical view of empire?

The Bible and empire

The biblical narrative was written in large part to confront the narrative of empire and to present the kingdom of God as an alternative empire.

The NT presents Jesus as having come to establish His kingdom (Mark 1:14-15), which is a counter empire.

Jesus declares to His disciples that we do not do empire the way the world does:

“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (Mark 10:42-44).

Paul adds that the kingdom of God will eventually abolish all other empires (1 Cor 15:24).

Some mistakenly read Jesus’ declaration to Pilate that “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36) as though His kingdom was heavenly and not a threat to Rome. This thinking is seriously problematic. That Jesus’ kingdom “is not of this world” conveys the origins of His kingdom. It does not deny that it was a kingdom that will indeed overthrow the kingdoms of this world. After all, Pilate does carry out His execution on the basis that He claimed to be king.

Jesus and the Kingdom of God

One need look no further than the narratives of Luke-Acts to recognize that the kingdom of God is central to the story of Jesus.

The Gospel of Luke describes the births of John the Baptist and Jesus (Luke 1-2) in accord with the births of Samuel and David. Just as Samuel was the prophet who anointed David, so John the Baptist would be the prophet who anoints the new Davidic king Jesus.

Jesus’ first public event in the Gospel of Luke is His announcement in the synagogue in Nazareth that He is the One whom the Spirit has anointed (Luke 4:18; cf 4:16-21)

The book of Acts opens with the affirmation that Jesus was “appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3)—anointing is what one does to a king.

What is most intriguing about Luke-Acts’ portrayal of Jesus as King, is that the recipient of these books was a man named “Theophilus” (Luke 1:3; Acts 1:1), who was himself likely a member of the aristocracy in Rome![1] In other words, Luke-Acts was written to a man that directly benefited and may even have been a player in the very empire that Jesus’ kingdom had come to destroy.

The Bible and Empire: Established by God

The Bible certainly affirms that God has established rulers (Rom 13:1-7). And we are called to submit to them and even pray for them. (1 Tim 2:1-2). After all, as Paul says, they have been established by God “to do you good” (Rom 13:4). That is, God has put in place civic rulers to maintain order within His creation until the time comes when the kingdom of God is established in fullness. Until that time, we ought to submit to them.[2]

What is not recognized well enough by many Christians, especially in the western world, is that the Scripture also affirms that these very same kingdoms are under the rule of Satan.

Now, it is important to note that this does not mean that all governments and the leaders themselves are evil. I will address the relationship between the people of God and the people of the empire in my next posts.

Empire as under the rule of the devil

According to Daniel 2, King Nebuchadnezzar had a dream which Daniel is called to interpret. Daniel explains to the king that the dream is about a great statue. This statue has four parts, each of which represents different kingdoms.

The first part, the head of gold, represents the kingdom of Nebuchadnezzar (This, of course, was a good thing for Daniel because at least Nebuchadnezzar’s ego was stroked by this revelation).

This great statute and, consequently, the four kingdoms that it represents will ultimately be destroyed by the coming of the divine kingdom:

“In the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom which will never be destroyed, and that kingdom will not be left for another people; it will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, but it will itself endure forever” (Dan 2:44).

Daniel 7, which is structurally parallel to Daniel 2, depicts four beasts that are also representatives of four kingdoms:

“These great beasts, which are four in number, are four kings who will arise from the earth” (Dan 7:17).

And, as with the four kingdoms in Daniel 2, these four kingdoms will also be destroyed when God establishes His eternal reign:

“Then the sovereignty, the dominion and the greatness of all the kingdoms under the whole heaven will be given to the people of the saints of the Highest One; His kingdom will be an everlasting kingdom, and all the dominions will serve and obey Him” (Dan 7:27).

In Rev 13:1-8, John borrows from the imagery of the four beasts of Daniel 7. But, instead of four beasts, John depicts one beast. This one beast has all the characteristics of the four beasts of Daniel 7 (e.g., John’s one beast has 7 heads and 10 horns and is part leopard, bear, and lion; Rev 13:1-2; cf Dan 7:4-8).

It appears that John (the author of Revelation) has taken the imagery of the book of Daniel and combined its four beasts into one.[3]

John, then, in accord with Daniel, is describing the kings of the world as hybrid beasts.[4] John also notes that this one beast is empowered by Satan (the dragon):

“the dragon gave him his power and his throne and great authority” (Rev 13:2).[5]

Thus, according to the book of Revelation, the empire is empowered by Satan.

In case we think that the book of Revelation is alone in portraying empire as ultimately under the authority of Satan, we would do well to notice that at the beginning of the gospels Satan offered Jesus the kingdoms of the world if He would worship him,

“the devil took Him to a very high mountain and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and their glory; and he said to Him, “All these things I will give You, if You fall down and worship me” (Matt 4:8-9).

Furthermore, Paul affirms Satan’s role as empowering empire when he states that Satan is the “god of this age” (2 Cor 4:4).[6]

It is essential to note at this point that I am not addressing the issue of how we are to relate to empire: i.e., we are to pray for our rulers (1 Tim 2:1-2), submit to them (Rom 13:1-7), and honor them (1 Pet 2:17).

This will be the subject of our next post.


[1] The best conclusion we have as the identity of Theophilus is that “Theophilus” (“lover of God”) was a nickname for a new convert to Christianity in Rome. That he was a member of the wealthy and powerful upper class in Rome is suggested by Luke’s address, “most excellent” (Luke 1:3); which was a title reserved for members of the elite “equestrian” order in Rome.

[2] I am not saying that we ought always to submit to such rulers. After all, they have been established in order to maintain order and for our good. Of course, when and how the people of God may be allowed to disobey rulers is subject to great debate.

[3] Though some suggest that the empire in Rev 13 is one particular empire, most scholars recognize that since it is a composite of all four of Daniel’s empires, it is likely that John is portraying the beast as embodying all empires. I do believe that John had Rome in mind. But, for John, Rome was the embodiment of all empires.

[4] A hybrid in the Bible is a distortion of God’s creation. God, after all, made everything according to its “kind” (Gen 1:24-25). Hybrids represent evil entities.

[5] The dragon is explicitly named “Satan” (Rev 12:9).

[6] This is my translation. I regularly use the NAS in my citations, but the NAS, along with the ESV, NLT, and NRS all translate the word “age” as “world.” My translation is in agreement with the NET, NIV, and NKJ.

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