Was Nero Caesar “Left Behind?”

 Since the Second World War, biblical prophecy has driven Christian book sales especially in the United States. With each new decade, a new best-seller promises to solve the puzzles and offer us a reliable countdown to the end of history. Moreover, the best seller of all best sellers in the 20th century was none other than The Late Great Planet Earth.[1] To be honest, in my early years in the faith I was captivated by the prophetic speculations of Hal Lindsey and others. Fortunately, my engagement with Christian theology leads to the rest of the story.

The book of Revelation is notoriously difficult to interpret and for 1,900 years Christians have been wrestling with how to make sense of the visions and dreams reported by John the Elder. This writer does not pretend to have the book figured out, not even close. Moreover, the more he reads and engages with the text, the more questions emerge. So these reflections are based on several recent readings of the text along with interaction with the work of Gordon Fee, N.T. Wright, John Stott, and others.

As one who affirms the inspiration and inerrancy of Holy Scripture, this writer thinks that understanding the text must begin with trying to get at the author’s original intentions (something that is not as easy as it might seem).[2] What was John the Elder attempting to communicate to his audience, the church leaders and congregants of the seven Asia Minor congregations that the author lists in chapters two and three. The entire book of Revelation was written to address their concerns, concerns rooted in the opposition and selective persecution they faced from Rome and its governing authorities. That reality must shape how we understand the book in our day and time. Revelation cannot be understood apart from its first-century context.

In the aftermath of the modern Enlightenment, several interpretive schools of thought have emerged concerning how to interpret the book and its content. While each has positive things to contribute to understanding Revelation, too often they lead us away from the text and what the author was attempting to communicate to his original listeners. The book of Revelation has at least three literary genres that shape its interpretation. The book is a prophecy (1:3), a declaring of the Word of God by John. Revelation is also an example of apocalyptic literature. The proper title is “The Apocalypse” and this form of Jewish literature was common in the first century and focused on conflict between God and the forces of evil (which Christians believe is rooted in Satan, the devil and the enemy of our faith) in language that describes a global and heavenly confrontation.[3] Finally, the book contains letters written to seven specific congregations which were written to be read during worship, probably with the contents of the entire book.

What does the text say?

While this cannot be an exhaustive exposition of the entire book, there are several keys that shape how we understand and interpret the book. First, while the author identifies the book as “the Revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:1), he does indicate that the book is written to the “seven churches in the province of Asia (1:4) that are identified in chapter one, verse eleven. John follows the same pattern as the Apostle Paul in his letters, and this tells us that the book of Revelation in its entirety is addressed to Christians in these seven congregations, not only the letters of chapters two and three, but the visions of the 24 elders in chapters four and five, the visions of the conflict described in chapters 6-18, and the return of Christ and the eternal kingdom articulated in chapters 19-22.

Second, more than any other New Testament document, the book of Revelation cites or alludes to images found in the Old Testament, especially from the books of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Daniel, and Zechariah.  For example, John liberally uses the number “seven” and speaks of seven churches, seven lampstands, seven seals, seven trumpets, seven trumpets, and so on. The allusion to Genesis 1:1-2:3 is apparent where “seven days” is used to indicate that all of creation is the result of God’s creative activity. Even in the seven seals, trumpets, and bowls, we see a parallel to the seventh-day in Genesis 2:1-3 where God rested. In the same way that the number seven alludes to the perfection of God’s creative activity, so the same number offers an indication of God’s consummation of his Kingdom, or what N.T. Wright terms “new creation.”[4] Scripture offers a Christian understanding of human history through its sequencing of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation (or “new creation”) and the book of Revelation is integral to that.

Moreover, understanding the text of Revelation means grasping the significance of the many Old Testament allusions found throughout the book. This reflects what the evangelical New Testament scholar Ben Witherington sees as foundational to understanding New Testament teaching in its entirety.[5] Witherington remarks that the New Testament represents the efforts of its writers, indeed of all first century Christians, to come to grips with the significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and how all of the Old Testament is fulfilled in his life, death, and resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus is so significant that for the New Testament writers, everything has changed. In the face of the first-century Roman religion of emperor worship, Christians can no longer say that “Caesar is Lord.” Now they proclaim that “Jesus is Lord” and this proclamation has deep implications for how they live in the midst of a hostile Roman society.[6]

Third, because all of the book of Revelation is addressed to hearers and readers in the seven Asia Minor congregations, they will naturally understand the images found throughout the book. For example, they will understand the use of gematria in Revelation 13:18 where John identifies the “beast” with the number “666” (more on this later, but this writer is convinced that they knew the meaning of this number in terms of the identity of the beast).[7]They will understand the significance of the number “144,000” found in Revelation 7 as representative of the people of God. They will grasp the meaning of the measurements of the New Jerusalem described in Revelation 21. The visions articulated by John are not meant to be mysterious to his readers. Instead they are to provide concrete hope to the people of God who face political and religious opposition from the Roman Empire. As strong as Rome now appeared, it was temporal. But God’s kingdom is eternal and will be fully revealed by Jesus Christ at the end of history when he returns to earth. In other words, God wins!

Finally, while in the eyes of John and his readers the book represents both present and future events, for those of us reading the book 1,900 years later the book represents past, present, and future. This is where the various schools of interpretation often lead us astray. Preterists often see the book as almost entirely taking place in the past (even for some the return of Christ). A number of Historicists see the images of the book as representing specific historical events over the past 1,900 years.[8] Futurists see everything after Revelation 3 as located entirely future to our 21st century historical location.[9] None of these views do full justice to a historical, grammatical, literary, and cultural reading of the text. Our goal in reading is not to adhere to a specific school of thought but to read the text on its own terms.

This writer suggests that a proper reading of the text leads to an interpretative schema that sees chapters 6-18 as having past, present, and future dimensions with its ultimate goal reflecting the bodily return of Jesus Christ to earth and the “already but not yet” Kingdom of God being fully realized in a “new heaven and new earth,” ie, “new creation.”

Two interpretive issues

The brevity of this paper only permits time for exploration of two interpretive issues that shed light on how we read the text. The first is the tendency of some scholars to identify the second beast of Revelation 13 with the term “antichrist” identified in 1 John 2:18-23. The term “antichrist” is only used in 1 John, and he offers a clear biblical definition of the term. “Who is the liar? It is the man who denies that Jesus is the Christ. Such a man is the antichrist—he denies the Father and the Son” (1 John 2:22). Earlier in the passage John indicates that his readers have heard that the antichrist is coming, but “even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour” (1 John 2:18). John seems to indicate that the term “antichrist” does not refer to a single individual but to multiple persons who deny Christ and who despite outward appearances have not gone out from the people of God (1 John 2:19).

This biblical understanding of antichrist as describing multiple individuals frames this writer’s interpretation of Revelation 6-18. Before we get there, we need to return to Revelation 13 and speak to the identity of the second beast in that chapter. Insight into that identification is actually found in Revelation 17 in the identification of “Mystery Babylon the Great.” Babylon is described as “the woman who was drunk with the blood of the saints, the blood of those who bore testimony to Jesus” (17:6). That woman rode on “the beast which has seven heads and ten horns” (17:7).

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Anyone who attempted to force Christians to proclaim that “Caesar is Lord” is an antichrist because Christians could only claim that “Jesus is Lord.” And John shows why by linking Rome to Babylon and describing its destruction, while showing that the Kingdom of God transcends all temporal empires. 

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This beast is identified in two ways. First, “the seven heads are seven hills on which the woman sits” (17:9). Rome has always been known as the city of seven hills, and this is an obvious reference to that city. Moreover, it is not surprising that John would equate Rome with Babylon. In Daniel 2 and Daniel 7, Babylon and Rome are two of the four great world empires, each of which stand in opposition to God and his purposes. The second way the beast is identified is through the curious phrase “who once was, now is not, and will come up out of the Abyss and go to his destruction” (17:8). This is a play on the phrase found in Revelation 1:8: “who is, and who was, and who is to come,” a phrase that clearly identifies Jesus Christ.

So if this identifies Jesus Christ, then who is identified by this strange phrase in chapter 17. Assuming that John wrote the book in AD 90-95, this writer suggests that it refers to Nero Caesar. Nero was probably the most feared emperor of the first century and most likely the man responsible for the deaths of the Apostles Paul and Peter, as well as hundreds of Christians whom he blamed for the fires that swept Rome as part of his failed efforts at urban renewal (“who once was”). He had been dead for over 20 years at the time of John’s writing (“now is not’). Now a new Nero would return in the person of the current emperor Domitian and in future emperors who would bring opposition, even death, to those Christians who refuse to take the mark of the beast (which in my view simply means their refusal to confess that “Caesar is Lord”). So Revelation 17 helps us understand the gematria of Revelation 13:18 and make a primary (but not a sole) identification of the second beast as Nero Caesar.[10]

The second interpretive issue is that John’s intent is probably not to identify the second beast exclusively with Nero Caesar but with the theological character of Roman state religion. In the first century B.C. Rome began to identify their emperors with deity at their death. But beginning with Nero the identification of deity with the emperor happened while the emperor was still alive. Nero, Domitian, and their successors were now seen as objects of patriotic worship.  Anyone who attempted to force Christians to proclaim that “Caesar is Lord” is an antichrist because Christians could only claim that “Jesus is Lord.” And John shows why by linking Rome to Babylon and describing its destruction, while showing that the Kingdom of God transcends all temporal empires.  This fits nicely with John’s description of multiple antichrists that we noted earlier in 1 John 2, and suggests some fresh ways of interpreting the book of Revelation that are relevant to the people of God in the 21st century.

An interpretive schema

In thinking about interpretation, it is important to grasp the difference between exegesis and interpretation. Earlier, we described the importance of authorial intent for understanding the message of Scripture. Exegesis involves just that, in that we strive to determine what the author attempted to communicate to his original hearers. Only after that can we engage in hermeneutics, toward interpreting and applying Revelation (or any biblical text) for our contemporary context.

This is where the various schools of interpretation come into play. The various forms of preterism, historicism, and futurism are mostly questions of hermeneutics as opposed to exegesis in that they address how the text speaks to contemporary Christianity. The interpretations that draw around Reformed amillennialism, Dispensational premillennialism, parallel historicism, ,and other schools of thought speak primarily to how we interpret the text in our present day. But for any of those interpretations to be valid, they must be grounded in what the author desired to tell his readers and listeners.

This writer seeks to build his interpretive schema on the conviction that Revelation speaks to past, present, and future. Some argue that properly interpreted, the New Testament must been seen as teaching there are two distinct peoples of God. This is a complex argument that cannot be described here, but the point is that only chapters one through three are seen as applying to the church, while chapters four through eighteen are viewed as applying only to a national Israel.[11] The fundamental problem with this viewpoint in this writer’s opinion is that it reads a theological schema on the biblical text that the author did not intend. In Revelation 1:10-11, John indicates that while he was “in the Spirit” he was commanded to “write on a scroll what you see and send it to the seven churches.” Moreover, what he writes is “what is now and what will take place later” (1:19). From this passage, it is clear that the message of entire book is for those seven churches, not just one portion of it. Everything in the entire book of Revelation is written for Christians in those seven congregations (and by extension to us).

An important corollary to this conviction is that because the entire book is written for these followers of Jesus who face significant opposition from the Roman government, especially in the eastern provinces of the Empire, the apocalyptic images and references in chapters four through eighteen speak of Rome as a political entity. In other words, the evil described in those chapters finds its initial fulfillment in the Roman Empire itself. As John weaves vision after vision, image after image, followers of Jesus knew exactly what he was speaking about. They faced incredible opposition from a powerful force about which they could do nothing. But as powerful as Rome was, a day would come when it would be smashed by the eternal God. Caesar thought he was god, and indeed Caesar was powerful. But like all human empires, Rome would fall in the face of the eternal God who was working out his purposes in human history.

Moreover, the sequencing of the seven seals, trumpets, and bowls found in chapters 6-18 points toward an intensification of opposition. For example, notice that each of the sequences ends with activity in heaven. The opening of the seventh seal in Revelation 8 leads to silence in heaven followed by the inauguration of the seven trumpets. The blowing of the seventh trumpet in Revelation 11 is followed by worship in heaven followed by even more significant destruction on earth. The seventh bowl is poured out with the cry, “It is done” (Revelation 16:17) and followed with unprecedented destruction visited on Babylon/Rome. This intensification can be seen in the all of the seals-trumpets-bowls.[12]In terms of our exegesis, we discover that chapters six through eighteen primarily reference first century Rome and that the beast (or “antichrist”) referenced is the office of the Roman Emperor. The question then becomes whether or not the seals-trumpets-bowls schema in Revelation speaks to future periods of Christian history as well.

Many preterists would answer “no” and argue that Revelation 19 speaks to something other than a literal return of Christ to earth. Historicists will see Revelation 6-18 as speaking to a progression in human history leading up to a future return of Christ. Futurists see everything from Revelation 6 on as referring to events still yet to take place.

What is John the Elder attempting to communicate in these texts? How should we read Revelation 6-18 as the people of God today? Can we make sure that our reading takes into account the intent of the author in terms of his historical and cultural context, and in terms of the grammar and literary forms found in the book?

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Evil will continue to intensify. But we take courage in the same way that Christians did during John’s time. No matter how evil the times seem, no matter what happens, we have confidence that the Triune God is present with us, and that we will see our Lord Jesus Christ face to face at his return. Amen. Come Lord Jesus Christ.

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I think the literary structure suggests good ways to read the text and make the following observations:

  1. The seven churches found in the first three chapters are real congregations and all of the book is addressed to them. Moreover, John has written to them in language that they would readily understand given their personal, political, and cultural contexts.
  2. The heavenly scenes communicate the nearness of heaven and earth. Modern people are used to thinking of heaven as something far distant and ethereal and not connected to the reality of earth. But for John, heaven is a concrete reality that will be fully realized on earth at the return of Jesus Christ.
  3. John’s understanding of multiple antichrists in his first letter fits well with his identification of Babylon with Roman emperor worship. Even after the fall of Rome, antichrists will continue to appear in human history right up until the return of Jesus Christ. Mohammed, Charlemagne, Napoleon, Stalin, Hitler, Mao and others fill the bill, and historically the number of antichrists can be expected to grow and intensify leading up to the end of this age.
  4. The seals, trumpets, and bowls convey an intensification of evil from the time of the resurrection until Christ’s return. They are parallel accounts of this intensification of evil, and while we cannot equate specific historical events with the pestilences described, they do demonstrate that evil will grow stronger as world history moves toward the return of Christ. This “parallel historical” description fits the intentions of the text better than the preterist, continuous historicist, idealist, and futurist schools of interpretation.[13]
  5. This interpretative schema leaves open the possibility of a future singular antichrist who will dominate the political, cultural, and religious landscapes of the world. While the text does not require a future singular antichrist, it certainly leaves room for it but refuses to be dogmatic. This is a matter that well-meaning Christians can and should disagree over and it certainly is not central to the faith.
  6. A parallel historical schema reflects the entire New Testament teaching that the return of Jesus Christ will be personal, visible, and not subject to any secret prophetic knowledge that some may claim. Too many people have argued about various prophetic interpretations, and attempted to make certain images and symbols fit with historical or future events to the point where the people of God have been distracted from their mission in the world. The reality is that only the Father knows the day and time of Christ’s return (Matthew 24:36-37) and useless speculation is harmful.

In no way do I pretend that this is the final word on understanding and interpreting the book of Revelation. I think this is the best way to understand the book in terms of reading the text on its own terms, but I recognize that well-meaning Christians will disagree. Our interpretation of Revelation should not be a test of Christian orthodoxy unless that interpretation denies the core of Christian faith and the Christian understanding of history in terms of creation, fall, redemption, and consummation. I simply offer this as my understanding as I try to be faithful to the author’s original intent.

All of this to say that we can be confident that evil will continue to grow and expand during this age when the Kingdom of God is “already but not yet.” Christians are not immune from suffering, persecution, and death. Indeed, even today Christians are suffering and facing death for their faith in places throughout the world. Evil will continue to intensify. But we take courage in the same way that Christians did during John’s time. No matter how evil the times seem, no matter what happens, we have confidence that the Triune God is present with us, and that we will see our Lord Jesus Christ face to face at his return. Amen. Come Lord Jesus Christ.

Notes

[1] Hal Lindsey, The Late Great Planet Earth (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1970). Ironically, the title was a take-off from Curt Gentry’s 1969 novel titled The Last Days of the Late Great State of California, a description of events that might occur if a massive earthquake destroyed everything west of the San Andreas fault.

[2] Gordon Fee and Douglas Stuart make this this important point in How to Read the Bible for All its Worth 3d.ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 23-24; 249-50. David Bebbington in Patterns in History: A Christian Perspective on Historical Thought 4th.ed. (Waco, TX: Baylor UP, 2018) describes the impact of Postmodernism on historical and literary research and points out that characteristic to postmodern interpretation is the assertion that authorial intent is essentially undiscoverable and therefore, all interpretation is “reader-response” meaning that each reader “interprets” the text apart from any historical context. See 139-141 for discussion.

[3] For a description of this literary form, see Leon Morris, Apocalyptic (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972).

[4] N.T. Wright uses the term “new creation” when he speaks of this fourfold movement of God in human history. See N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church (New York: HarperOne, 2008), 67.

[5] Ben Witherington, New Testament History: A Narrative Approach (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007).

[6] The second-century text, The Martyrdom of Polycarp offers a dramatic illustration of Christian unwillingness to practice emperor worship. In 167 AD, when Polycarp is ushered into the stadium to either deny Christ or face certain death, he replies “For eighty-six years, I have been his servant, and he has done me no wrong. How can I blaspheme my King who saved me?” cf. Michael W. Holmes, ed. The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, 3d.ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2007), 317

[7] See G. B. Caird, The Revelation of St. John the Divine (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), 174-77).

[8] This is characteristic of the continuous historical school of interpretation. While the continuous historical school of thought has few modern-day adherents, a strong intellectually sound defense can be found in Oral C. Collins, The Final Prophecy of Jesus: An Introduction, Analysis, and Commentary on the Book of Revelation (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2007). Parallel historicists would disagree with the continuous historical interpretive schema though both schools argue that the seals, trumpets, and bowls describe the period of time between Jesus’s resurrection and his return to earth in the future.

[9] For a scholarly commentary written from a dispensationalist futurist point of view, see John Walvoord, The Revelation of Jesus Christ (Chicago, Moody Press, 1966).

[10] For a further explanation of gemetria and its usage in this passage, see Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 2d.ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), 757. Keener points out that the term translated as “mark” in 13:16 “is among other things, the regular term for the imperial stamp on documents and of the image of his head on coins.”

[11] Known as Dispensational-premillennialism, this school of thought originated with John Nelson Darby in the early to mid-19th century and had its ablest 20th century defenders in C.I. Schofield, John Walvoord, and Charles Ryrie. See, Charles Ryrie, Dispensationalism Today (Chicago: Moody Press, 1965). A more recent view called “Progressive Dispensationalism” offers a different reading of the Kingdom of God and embraces the “already but not yet” idea of the Kingdom of God while still holding for a distinct future for Israel as a political entity. See Craig Blaising and Darrell Bock, Progressive Dispensationalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Bridgepoint, 2000).

[12] J. Scott Duvall, Revelation, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014), 126.

[13] For a chart that demonstrates the interrelationship between the seals, trumpets, and bowls, see Duvall, 126. According to Duvall, “The three series of judgments cover much of the same ground but also increase in intensity….Revelation moves forward in cycles of judgment rather than a neat, linear, sequential progression. Perhaps this slow movement hints at God’s patience in wanting people to repent.” In this writer’s view, this is the reading that is most literal because it allows the text itself to shape the interpretive schema and does not seek to impose a school of thought on the text.