In a previous post, Sunday Study: 666 The Number of the Beast, I exegeted Revelation 13’s infamous reference to the mark of the beast, in that post I argued that the first beast is a reference to Rome; a world empire, built on seven hills that ruled over all the nations of the earth at the time of John’s writing. The historical context of the book was the emperor cult; the roman state, in the person of the emperor, was considered a god and was to be worshiped. The reference to 666 (616 in some early manuscripts) was probably a Jewish literary technique known as gematria applied to Nero Caesar, who was the sixth roman emperor after the “Five” [who] have fallen”; and hence; is the one “who is.” In its historical and literary context then Revelation 13 was exhorting Christians, who lived during the Neroian persecution, to resist the emperor, to refuse to worship the state as divine and to resist Christian or Jewish religious authorities who encouraged them to do so. To see my full argument for these conclusions, readers should read the linked post above; here I simply want to revisit one important point that occurs in the text;
And the dragon stood on the shore of the sea. And I saw a beast coming out of the sea. He had ten horns and seven heads, with ten crowns on his horns, and on each head a blasphemous name. The beast I saw resembled a leopard, but had feet like those of a bear and a mouth like that of a lion. The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority.(Re 13:1-2)
The first beast, the roman emperor, is said to get its “power,” “great authority” and “throne” from the dragon. The imagery of the dragon is explained later in Rev 20 as “that ancient serpent, who is the devil, or Satan.” The text then explicitly states that the Roman Empire and the emperor’s authority, was satanic. While space does not allow me a full treatment here, the text goes on to predict the destruction of the Roman Empire and those who support it.
Why the excursus into apocalyptic literature? Because it is important to put in context another, more well known passage, which is widely quoted; the locus classicus passage on obedience to the state in Romans,
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves. For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience. This is also why you pay taxes, for the authorities are God’s servants, who give their full time to governing. Give everyone what you owe him: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. (Romans 13:1-7)
The contrast here is important, in both Revelation 13 and Romans 13 we have a reference to the roman emperor. In Romans the emperor’s authority has been established by God and he is a servant (minister) of God, Christians are called to submit, obey and to not resist the state. In Revelations 13 the Roman emperor and empire is said to gain its authority from Satan, is implicitly said to be a minister of Satan and Christians are called to not submit to or obey its demands to absolute obedience and worship.
The contrast is fairly evidently explained by the different contexts the passages occur in. The book of Romans was written around 55-57 AD; this puts it just after the death of Claudius and during the early part of Nero’s reign. During this time, Nero was strongly influenced by Seneca the Younger and Barrus and his rule was widely considered to be competent and relatively enlightened. Revelation 13 is written later, after the great fire of Rome in 64 AD where Nero had transformed into the infamous persecuting, brutal, power-hungry tyrant he is immortalised as.
Similarly, the specific literary context makes the differences clear. In Romans 13, after commanding Christians to submit to authority, the text goes on to give reasons as to why Christians are to do this, “He [the state] is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.” The reason we submit out of conscience i.e due to a moral requirement, is because the state is God’s servant and this is explicated as “an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” The context makes this clear when after spelling out that governments are God’s servants the text explicates this as “he [the state] is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” In other words, the government acts as an agent of God in its function of commending good and punishing evil.
Revelation 13, however, is not talking about the emperor punishing wrongdoing and commending good;
The dragon gave the beast his power and his throne and great authority…. Men worshiped the dragon because he had given authority to the beast, and they also worshiped the beast and asked, “Who is like the beast? Who can make war against him?” The beast was given a mouth to utter proud words and blasphemies and to exercise his authority for forty-two months. He opened his mouth to blaspheme God, and to slander his name and his dwelling place and those who live in heaven. He was given power to make war against the saints and to conquer them. And he was given authority over every tribe, people, language and nation. All inhabitants of the earth will worship the beast–all whose names have not been written in the book of life belonging to the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world. (Rev 13)
Here the context is quite different; rome is a world empire, which makes war against other nations and through violence gains dominion over every tribe, nation and language. It is a state that demands worship and absolute obedience and which persecutes and murders innocent people. In this context, Christians are called to resist it and its authority is said to be from the dragon.
This is vitally important because some people apparently misinterpret Romans 13 to support absolute dictatorship. A correspondent of Madeleine’s once wrote the following,
“Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.” To be blunt the above makes me feel sick. I don’t think the Nazi regime, or fascist Italy can be compared to the individualism that occurred in the birth of the United States. How can you hold these in the same regard under the excuse that they’re established by God? The only bromidial, evasive and ludicrous comeback that the victims under those totalitarian regimes got was “its God’s purpose and plan” even if you don’t understand it just have faith and follow Christ.
Madeleine’s correspondent here interprets Romans 13 to teach that dictatorships and totalitarian regimes are instituted by God and are morally on par with limited governments. He also seemed to think that throughout history Christian theologians have never addressed this issue but have just told people to “have faith and follow Christ” in the face of being governed by dictators and tyrants.
Apart from the flawed understanding of the history of theology, the author here misunderstands the passage. Romans 13 needs to be read next to Revelation 13. When one does this one sees that the picture is quite different. Romans 13 says that states that use force, “the sword,” to punish the guilty and to defend the innocent act as Gods agents and hence, have legitimate authority which must be respected. Revelation 13 states that when states grossly exceed their mandate like the Nazi unjust conquest of other nations, persecution of the innocent and Hitler’s deification of the state are not exercising a legitimate, God given, authority but rather are portrayed as something satanic.