Many believe John wrote Revelation as a response to an empire-wide persecution of Christians—offering promise and encouragement during a time of emperor worship. However, if we consider the historical context of Revelation, we also find another picture—one where Christians faced the same challenges we face today. Like us, they were struggling to know how to live. They were confused about their social and religious identity. They struggled with political and economic structures that presented challenges for their faith. How did they—and how should we—handle these challenges?
The Historical Context
If we study the historical context of Revelation, we find that persecution began in Rome and may have been spreading eastward. During the first two centuries, Roman persecution of the Church was sporadic and local. John may have feared that the hostility would spread throughout the empire, but those he was addressing in the seven churches in western Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) had likely not yet been affected (Rev 1:9; 2:1–3:22). The cities of these churches had temples dedicated to emperor worship, but the emperor himself did not necessarily impose or orchestrate such worship at this point; rather, local communities usually did this to win imperial favor.
John is familiar with persecution, and he knows of martyrs and prisoners in the churches he addresses—concerns he expresses in Revelation (1:9; 2:9; 3:10). But he also criticizes those who allied themselves too closely with the Roman Empire and engaged in idolatrous activities (2:14, 20; 4:14–22). A complex picture arises of Christians wrestling within an urban cultural context.
Christianity developed in an ancient urban context—one where politics, religion and economics were inextricably linked. In his letters to the churches, John expresses concern for Christian participation in civic life. He criticizes those who engage in immoral activities, such as eating food sacrificed to idols and religious sexual practices (Rev 2:20). Romans believed that religious devotion to civic and patron deities would lead to economic prosperity. They also worshiped the emperor because they thought he had divine favor that would bring them social stability. To them, he was a god (or at least god’s son).
How would early Christians relate to the polytheistic environment of Greek and Roman society? Not all of John’s listeners would have believed the Roman Empire was an enemy of the Church; rather, they were inclined to participate. John urges them to take a hard line against any involvement in idolatrous aspects of Roman culture. He shows them that refusal to do so was a testimony equal to prophecy (Rev 19:10). Thus, while Revelation provides comfort for the persecuted, it also exhorts those who have given in to the Roman imperial order.
Engaging in commerce presented challenges for early Christians because Roman economic and institutional structures often meant participating in idolatry (Rev 13:16–17). John delivers some of his sharpest comments to this particular issue. In Revelation 17, he presents Rome as a luxuriating prostitute; he satirizes Roma, the patron goddess of Rome, who was traditionally celebrated as a severe and chaste goddess (17:1–6). When the destruction of “Babylon” (Rome) comes, he presents it through the eyes of kings, merchants and shipmasters—those who have benefited from commerce and now lament their loss of prosperity (Rev 18:1–19).
John presents a vision of prosperity that counters Rome’s. While Revelation 18 portrays the destroyed city of Babylon with mourning kings and merchants, Revelation 21:1–22:5 portrays a new heaven and a new earth. The new Jerusalem—the opposite of Babylon—offers true worship, freedom from suffering and a vision of life-giving creation and social harmony. The precious stones and gold of the new Jerusalem (21:11–21) depict a different relationship between worship and economics—one dedicated to healing and hospitality (21:8, 27; 22:15). This is not about wealth; it’s about abundance.
Revelation deals with issues that are still relevant in the Church today—social and religious identity, participation in political and economic structures that disadvantage or oppress others, and the place of Christian faith in giving voice to political resistance and prophetic witness. And Revelation’s message of uncompromising faith provides Christians with a solution to these challenges.
When the Pharisees asked Jesus if it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, Jesus asked to see a coin for the tax. They gave Him a denarius like this. The motto on this coin proclaims Tiberius to be the son of the divine Caesar who preceded him. Jesus, the true Son of God, would have recognized the irony of Tiberius’ claim (Matt 22:17–22; Mark 12:14–17; Luke 20:21–26).
Biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).