Revelation 13:7-10 and the Rise of Persecution

(7)  Also it was allowed to make war on the saints and to conquer them. And authority was given it over every tribe and people and language and nation, (8)  and all who dwell on earth will worship it, everyone whose name has not been written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain.

                   Check the book of Acts and you’ll see that the empire played a role in the persecution of the saints headed up by the Jews. However, it was Nero who took it to another level. The picture of making “war on the saints and to conquer them” is certainly a most fitting of Nero’s persecution. Which means that we are drawing closer in the timeframe to the present day of John seeing these visions. Beginning in chapter twelve, the visions took us back in time to explain how the devil was behind the attempted devouring of Jesus, the raising up of the Jewish persecutor, and now, in chapter thirteen, he is behind the raising of a greater and more powerful persecutor. None of this so far, in chapters twelve and thirteen have been “things that must soon take place” (1:1), but they are here to help the Christians understand the situation of the “things that must soon take place.” But, as this section is coming to a close, the backstory is nearly done. We are approaching the present day (when these visions were seen by John). So far, the beast was mostly a blasphemer in word, with little action; but under Nero, the persecution becomes very physical.

                   The Roman senator and historian, Tacitus (born in 56 A.D.), wrote the most detailed account of the persecution under Nero. Tacitus speaks of Nero’s attempt to blame the great fire of Rome (64 A.D.) on the Christians.

“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular. Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind. Mockery of every sort was added to their deaths. Covered with the skins of beasts, they were torn by dogs and perished, or were nailed to crosses, or were doomed to the flames and burnt, to serve as a nightly illumination, when daylight had expired. Nero offered his gardens for the spectacle, and was exhibiting a show in the circus, while he mingled with the people in the dress of a charioteer or stood aloft on a car. Hence, even for criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment, there arose a feeling of compassion; for it was not, as it seemed, for the public good, but to glut one man’s cruelty, that they were being destroyed.” (Tacitus, Annals, 15:44).

This is a tremendous record of Christ and early Christians straight from the mind of a Roman Senator who thought of Christianity as an evil in the world. Let’s start the analysis with His documentation of Christ. He speaks of a large group known by the world as Christians, who first began in Judea, but has since spread even to Rome. Tacitus notes the origins of the class called Christians who lived in the time of Nero, saying that it began with one man, whom he names “Christus,” who “suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius.” The “extreme penalty” of Roman punishment was execution by crucifixion. Tacitus said that the Roman in charge of such execution was Pontius Pilatus, the Roman procurator of that region. Tacitus then proceeds to say something strange that happened after this penalty was inflicted on this one man, “a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out.” What Tacitus means by this, I cannot say for sure; however, several scholars hold the position that he is speaking of the something mischievous in the resurrection of the executed man; following which, Christianity broke out in great strength, even reaching to Rome. Whether Tacitus is referencing the resurrection of Christ is difficult to say for sure; nevertheless, it stands as a strong possibility.

Tacitus would never had recorded the event of Jesus’ death (as it had no importance for him) if it not had been for Emperor Nero’s persecution of the Christians, to which, Tacitus, as all good historians, gives the background origins of the group. The documented history that he gives of Christ’s death, as important as it is to us, is merely a side note to Tacitus’ more important goal, which is to provide the record of how the capital of the empire burned extensively for seven days, killing many thousands of Romans. Tacitus does not give his opinion as to who was guilty of setting the fire, but he seems to point to Nero. Suetonius, another first century Roman historian, gives further detail into the proof that Nero was guilty of the fire (Suetonius, The Twelve Caesars, Nero, Chapter 38). Nonetheless, it was the Christians that Nero blamed the fire on, and unleashed terrible tortures upon them.

The Christians seemed to be the easiest target to place the blame on. Tacitus said that they were “a class hated for their abominations.” In Roman circles they were understood as a group who denied the worship of the emperor. Tacitus even states his opinion that they were “criminals who deserved extreme and exemplary punishment.” Although it seemed to Nero that the Roman citizens would follow suit with his attack on Christians, Tacitus reveals that “there arose a feeling of compassion” for the persecuted, probably due to the extremes which Nero took.

The persecution that Tacitus records is by no means a standard hardship. What the brethren of the first century endured was like nothing before its time, nor anything afterward. It began in Rome, but it seems that Nero wanted to put an end to the group throughout his entire empire, and therefore, extended the persecution into the rest of the world. Peter seems to reference this point when he speaks to Christians very far east of Rome about the present persecution; saying that “the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brotherhood throughout the world.” (1 Peter 5:9). Peter attributes the origins of Nero’s persecution to be from Satan himself (ibid); the book of Revelation also gives witness to this fact (13:2). The details from Tacitus are as follows: Some were covered with animal skins for releasing dogs to tear them to death. Others were crucified, while still others were placed in Nero’s garden at social affairs after dusk, where they served as lamps, being burned in flames. These details that Tacitus documents give us the sense of the wrath that Nero unleashed on Christians from A.D. 64 to 68.

(9)  If anyone has an ear, let him hear: (10)  If anyone is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be slain with the sword, with the sword must he be slain. Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.

                   This statement, “if any has an ear…” is a refocus on the situation. This is the statement the Lord had repeated throughout the letters to the churches in Asia (chapters 2-3), and amid this terrible vision of this beast making war against the saints, we hear the consistency and calmness of the instruction of Christ. We are called to pay attention, not to the war and terror, but to the word of God, “If anyone is to be taken captive, to captivity he goes; if anyone is to be slain with the sword, with the sword must he be slain.” This is a reference to Jeremiah 15, when God was speaking of the fall of old Judah, and he told Jeremiah,

“‘Though Moses and Samuel stood before me, yet my heart would not turn toward this people. Send them out of my sight, and let them go! And when they ask you, ‘Where shall we go?’ you shall say to them, ‘Thus says the LORD: “‘Those who are for pestilence, to pestilence, and those who are for the sword, to the sword; those who are for famine, to famine, and those who are for captivity, to captivity.’” (Jeremiah 15:1-2).

God could not do anything to save the land of Judah; even if Moses or Samuel were there to beg for Judah’s deliverance, God would not listen. God had given them plenty of chances through Moses and Samuel (and others) in the past, but their sins have come up before God and their cup of wickedness runs over. They would be paid back justly for the injustice which they had done. So here, in Revelation 13:10, the same idea of justice is spoken of against the Romans. They may appear invincible in their wickedness now, but God is judge, and they will be repaid for what they had done to the saints.

                   “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints.” The saints are comforted and encouraged to endure and remain faithful knowing that God knows what is happening, and that he will repay those who do evil to his children.

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