Skip to content

The First Hearers of the Apocalypse


I. Introduction

Blessed is the one who reads the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near (1:3). I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book … (22:18). 

John’s prophecy was clearly read aloud to the churches to which he first wrote. How did they hear it? What did John’s strange language mean to them? To answer that question, we need to know something about pagan Rome’s attitude to the Christians.

II. Roman Society’s Attitude to Christians

The first major hostility against Christians occurred in 64 CE after the great fire that burnt most of Rome. Emperor Nero shifted blame from himself by making scapegoats of the Christians. Here’s how the Roman historian Tacitus (56–120 CE) records the sad affair:

Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace…Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who confessed [to being Christians]; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much of the crime of arson, as of hatred of the human race. 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. These served to illuminate the night when daylight failed (Tacitus, Annals, xv.44.2–8).

Though decades after the writing of the Apocalypse, I mention the execution of Justin, Chariton, Charito, Euelpistus, and others as it gives an insight into such tragic events. This took place in 165 CE in Rome before the Prefect Rusticus.

“Do what you will. For we are Christians and offer no sacrifice to idols.”

Rusticus the prefect gave sentence: “Let those who will not sacrifice to the gods and yield to the command of the Emperor be scourged and led away to be beheaded in accordance with the laws.” The holy martyrs went out glorifying God to the customary place and were beheaded, and fulfilled their testimony by the confession of their Saviour [see Rev 20:4]. And some of the faithful took their bodies by stealth and laid them in a convenient place, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ working with them, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.[1]

An immensely important evidence of the attitude to Christians in the Roman world comes from an exchange between Emperor Trajan (born 53 CE, reigned 98–117 CE) and one of his provincial Governors, Pliny the Younger―or Gaius Plinius Caecilius Secundus to give him his full Latin name―who was born around 61 CE. He was a lawyer trained in the school of Quintilian, and like lawyers then and now, he was also a diplomat. It is one of his letters to Emperor Trajan when he was Governor of Bithynia-Pontus that interests us. I quote from letter 96 of book 10, written around 112 CE.

Having never been present at any trials of the Christians, I am unacquainted with the method and limits to be observed either in examining or punishing them….In the meantime, the method I have observed towards those who have been denounced to me as Christians is this: I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed….

Those who denied they were, or had ever been Christians, who repeated after me an invocation to the gods, and offered adoration, with wine and frankincense, to your image, which I had ordered to be brought for that purpose, together with those of the gods, and who finally cursed Christ―none of which acts, it is said, those who are really Christians can be forced into performing―these I thought it proper to discharge.

Those who admitted to having once been Christians were likewise discharged provided “they all worshipped your image and the statues of the deities, and cursed the name of Christ” (italics added).

These Christians were not brigands or criminals. Their innocence is manifest in Pliny’s own description of their conduct.

…they were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to do any wicked deeds, but never to commit any fraud, theft or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then re-assemble to partake of food―but food of an ordinary kind.

This is the first description of Christians by a pagan that has come down to us. Its date and provenance places it very close in time and place to the most northern of the churches to which John wrote.

III. Christians: The Odd Person out in the Ancient World

Now when we recall that this official procedure met with Emperor Trajan’s approval, we can get some sense of how insecure the early Christians felt in the Roman world of the first and second centuries. Numerically they were, by say 100 CE, still a minority group. It is estimated that the population of the Roman Empire around 100 CE was about 50–60 million of which some 7–10 percent were Jews, the rest were pagans except for about 100,000 Christians. Where did these Christians belong? They were not under the law (Rom 6:14), so they were not Jews; but then they had turned from serving idols to serve the living God (1 Thess 1:10), so they weren’t pagans either. In the end they designated themselves as “the third race.” As John Barclay observes, conversion of a pagan to Christ meant “they had abandoned the worship of pagan deities, which “involved not only massive cognitive readjustments but also social dislocation.”[2]

Of course, some Christians tried to identify with Jews, since Rome recognized Jews as an ancient religion. Others tried to identify with pagans as far as possible to avoid hostility. John the Revelator denounced both these options as unacceptable. The place in Revelation where we see this Christian struggle for identity is in the letters to the seven churches of Asia Minor (modern Turkey).

IV. The Letters to the Seven Churches (Rev 2–3)

Just as the narratives in chapters 1, 3, 5 and 6 of Daniel are the key to its apocalyptic symbols, so the letters to the seven churches in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 are a guide to understanding its apocalyptic symbols. These seven churches were in a circle of some 310 miles (500km) beginning with Ephesus (50,000, sixth largest) on the coast and north to Smyrna (90,000, fourth largest) and Pergamum (24,000, twenty-first largest), then south to Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea, and then west back to Ephesus.[3] Pergamum is only 124 miles (200km) away from Bithynia where Pliny had martyred some Christians a decade after John wrote.

The temples in these cities were central to the economic and social life of the cities (re-ligio meant “the ties that bind people together”). Ephesus had two temples in honor of Augustus, the grand temple of Artemis, and it was the foremost center of the imperial cult.[4] Smyrna had a temple of Caesar Tiberius and the Roman senate. Pergamum had a temple to Rome and to Caesar Augustus, and an imperial altar in the temple of Asclepius. Thyatira had an imperial altar. Sardis boasted having a temple of Caesar Augustus. Philadelphia had an imperial temple. Finally, Laodicea had an imperial altar to Emperor Domitian.[5] Paganism was pervasive in the cultural environment of the seven churches to whom John wrote. All but Laodicea had imperial priests. The Christians refusal to worship either the Roman gods or the image of the emperor seems to have been the main cause for their persecution.[6]

In the letter to Ephesus, John praises them for their “patient endurance” and for “bearing up for the sake of [Jesus’] name” 2:2–3). The Nicolaitans, who are present in the church, “represented an accommodation with pagan society and [the] imperial cult.”[7] Clearly being a Christian in Ephesus in the first century was no picnic. The situation in Smyrna was even worse; their lot was “tribulation and poverty,” the latter the result of either confiscation of property or exclusion from free commerce. The Spirit warns them that they “are about to suffer,” and that some of them will experience the tribulation of incarceration followed by execution (2:10). The hope of the resurrection is to sustain them (vv. 10b–11).

Antipas, a Christian in Pergamum, had suffered martyrdom for his faith. More than likely this was at the hands of Roman officials and had become a notorious case within the Christian communities. The rest of the church is battling with the false testimony of “Balaam,” who is encouraging them to associate with the pagan cult. The content of “Balaam” and the Nicolaitans message seems to involve the matter of food sacrificed to idols and the accompanying immorality.[8] The text influencing John is probably Num 25:1–2, which contains some crucial terms for him: “While Israel was staying at Shittim, the people began to have sexual relations with the women of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods.

Food sacrificed to idols was a critical and widespread issue in the apostolic and sub-apostolic eras.[9] Any failure by Christians to compromise and associate with pagan worship could be seen as anti-Roman and socially disruptive and could have violent repercussions. Refusing to eat “food sacrificed to idols” separated a person from the whole social network of the ancient city. Paul’s treatment of the issue might be theologically more nuanced than John’s, but in the end both writers warn believers away from participating in pagan temple feasts (1 Cor 10:14–22). Involvement, however, may have been the easier option to the hostility that being aloof would have generated.

The Thyatirans are also praised for their “patient endurance” (2:19), but some are dallying with the teachings of “Jezebel.” Again, the issue is the pagan cult and the associated matters of food sacrificed to idols and immorality (2:20). Hemer suggests that commercial reasons were part of the cause for the compromise.[10] Two Old Testament texts seem to attract John to the image of “Jezebel”: 1 Kings 18:19 and 2 Kings 9:22. “Have all Israel assemble for me at Mount Carmel, with the four hundred fifty prophets of Baal and the four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.” “When Joram saw Jehu, he said, ‘Is it peace, Jehu?’ He answered, ‘What peace can there be, so long as the many whoredoms and sorceries of your mother Jezebel continue?’”

That a policy of amicable association with Jews and participation in pagan rituals made life easier for Christians in the first century finds support in the letter to Sardis. Hemer suggests that the majority of the Sardians had found a modus vivendi with the synagogue on Jewish terms, and that those who had “not soiled their garments” (3:4) refers to those few who had resisted compromise with pagan society.[11] If Hemer is correct, the majority of those in the church were ashamed of publicly confessing the name of Jesus. The result was that in this letter there is no hint of external persecution.

In contrast, the Philadelphians had borne a faithful witness and are praised for having “kept [Christ’s] word of patient endurance (3:10) and not denied his name (v. 8). The church had clearly experienced physical tension with the Jews which had greatly reduced the spiritual energy of the Christians (v. 8). John encourages them to think of themselves as the true Jews and to run their rigorous course confident of a reversal of fortunes when their Lord returns (vv. 9–11). Bauckham sees the language as intra-Judaism in nature and similar to a Jew reacting to certain Christian behaviors―and historical examples come readily to mind―by saying “they say they are Christians, but they are not.”[12]

The church at Laodicea is wealthy and at peace with the world. As far as John was concerned, it was too much at peace. He did not see Laodicea’s successful integration into pagan society as evidence of God’s blessing, for he reminds them that whom the Lord loves, he chastises (3:19). The Revelation, like the Gospel of Luke and the Letter of James, praises poverty above wealth. John believed that the choice between Caesar and Christ, which the seven churches of Asia Minor faced, would soon confront the whole network of churches as they spread around the entire Mediterranean world.

V. John’s Call to Martyrdom

John rejects the idea of assimilation to either Judaism or paganism. Even if this resistance results in suffering, John calls these early Christians to a faithful witness and willingness to die rather than compromise Christ. Consider the situation of these early Christians: Jews reject them as a blasphemous heresy. Pagans treat them as misfits and suspected them of all sorts of immoral acts. And the Roman state persecuted them just for being Christians. John’s call is for the believers in Asia Minor to “patiently endure” and to “hold fast” to the faith (Rev 1:9; 2:2, 3, 13, 19, 25; 3:10, 11; 13:10; 14:12).

John himself is in exile for witnessing to Christ as Lord (1:9). The Church of Smyrna is about to suffer, some will go to prison and even to death (2:10). Antipas, the faithful witness of Pergamum has already died for his faith (2:13). An hour of trial is coming that will test the whole world (Philadelphia 3:10). John sees the life blood of some Christians as the blood of the sin-offering poured out at the base of the altar, slain for their witness to Christ, there are more, John says, that are “to be killed as they themselves had been” (6:11). The angry dragon goes to make war on the rest of the woman’s seed (12:17); the first seed is Christ, the rest of her seed are his siblings, the Christians, who loved not their lives even unto death (12:11). The beast makes war on the saints and conquers them (13:7). If anyone is to be killed with the sword; with the sword he will be killed (13:10). John sees among the resurrected saints “those who had been beheaded for their testimony to Jesus and for the word of God, and who had not worshipped the beast or its image” (20:4).

Who is this beast? What is his image? When did he behead Christians?

VI. How Would the First Hearers Have Heard the Text?

The seductive harlot of Revelation 17 “is the great city which has dominion over the kings of the earth” (17:18). How would a hearer in Ephesus hear that? The woman is named “Babylon the great” that ancient city that sacked Jerusalem the city of God, and this woman is “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs of Jesus” (17:6). How would a hearer in Smyrna hear that? This “Babylon” city receives a constant flow of precious cargo (18:11–13). What city would a hearer in Pergamum think was meant? (The grain ships between Rome and Alexandria weighed 1200 tonnes and were up to 60 metres long taking up to two months to do the round trip; 6000 annual-port berthings were required to feed Rome, and that was for grain alone). It’s no wonder all the merchants, shipmasters and sailors cried when they saw this city destroyed (18:17), and where did the cargo ships take their cargo in the first century?[13]How would a hearer in Thyatira hear this? In this city was found the blood of prophets and of saints (18:24). How would a hearer in Sardis hear that? Who is the great whore that was guilty of “the blood of his servants (19:2)?” How would a hearer in Laodicea hear that?

Of course they heard Rome: the Rome of Nero (54–68), of Domitian (81–96), of Trajan (98–117), of Decius (249–251), and of Diocletian (284–305). The Christians in Asia Minor knew that Rome was the city on the seven mounts (Rev 17:9), the Eternal City; the Capital of the World, but also the city that persecuted the Christ and his followers (12:17). And what would those churches of Asia Minor think of when they heard of a beast with a lamb’s horns that made the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast? That is, the beast that gives life to the image of the beast? Who for them would qualify as the beast that causes those who would not worship the image of the beast to be killed (13:15)? No emperor visited Asia Minor in the first century, but the Imperial cult made his presence felt and known throughout the region. Coin inscriptions, images, public plaques, public festivals, and holidays were the means of disseminating the presence of the emperor. The Roman Empire knew no division between cult and state.

How did the first hearers hear John’s call to come out of Babylon? It meant to not practice the ways of Imperial Rome, and to not participate in its idolatry, its inequalities, its slavery, its unrestrained immorality, its militarism, or its brutality. But how should we read the Revelation today?   

VII. Hearing the Text Today

Traditionally Adventists have interpreted these letters as a sequential series with each one referring to a period in western church history down to our own day. This is somewhat arbitrary and it’s more important that we listen to the text closely in the way the first hearers heard it. This means that we apply all of the seven letters of Revelation to our own time but by analogy rather than by having only the last letter relevant to our own historical context.

The Great City is also Sodom and Egypt; it’s where Jesus was crucified (11:8). The Great City is pervasive. It reveals itself in the seductions of secularism, in the greed of consumerism, in the idolatry of sport and the worship of rock stars; it’s found in Sydney and Surfers, in Chicago and Cairns, and in London and Lund. Indeed, the West is the epitome of the Great City and of Empire.[14] To come out of her, is to embrace the way of the slaughtered Lamb. “More Christians were martyred in the twentieth century than in all the previous years since the founding of the church combined.” [15] Many Christians today live under despotic and brutal regimes. Such Christians need no help from the likes of me to hear the text of Revelation.

Even where we are not facing a physical threat from the State, Christians are under seductive attack to give up their faith. Revelation is a call for Christians to stand up, to be counted, and not to mute their gospel voice. It is a call to worship God first and foremost and not to compromise our dedication to him by putting such modern shrines as wealth, power and the State before him and his Christ. The verb “to worship” occurs twenty-four times in the Apocalypse (40 percent of the total New Testament usage), and worship is the center of the struggle between God and the “snake,” as it has been from the beginning. Worship him who made heaven and earth, or worship the beast and its gods, that’s the choice (Joshua 24:15; 1 Kings 18:21). I stand in awe of those Christians in the first centuries and today who die for their faith. We in the west will probably not die for our faith, but God grant us the courage to live for it.


Notes & References:

[1] J. Stevenson (ed.), A New Eusebius: Documents Illustrative of the History of the Church to A.D. 337 (London: S.P.C.K., 1957), 30.

[2] John M. G. Barclay, Obeying the Truth: A Study in Paul’s Ethics in Galatians (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1988)

[3] (accessed 13/01/2019). The population numbers are guesstimates at best. See also Wes Howard-Brook and Anthony Gwyther, Unveiling Empire: Reading Revelation Then and Now (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1999), 98 (their population estimates seem too high).

[4] Craig S. Keener, The NIV Application Commentary: Revelation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2000), 106.

[5] Howard-Brook and Gwyther, Unveiling Empire, 103.

[6] G. E. M. de Ste. Croix, “Why Were the Early Christians Persecuted?” Past and Present 26 (1963): 6–38.

[7] Colin J. Hemer, The Letters to the Seven Churches of Asia in their Local Setting (JNTS Supplement Series 11, Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1986): 67–68.

[8] It was Balaam’s advice that led to the downfall of Israel with the Midianite women (Num 31:16).

[9] Arnold Ehrhardt, “Social problems in the Early Church, I. The Sunday Joint of the Christian Housewife,” in idem The Framework of the New Testament Stories (Manchester: MUP, 1964) 275–290; Peter D. Gooch, Dangerous Food: 1 Corinthians 8–10 in Context. Studies in Christianity and Judaism (Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1993).

[10] Hemer, Letters, 123.

[11] Ibid., 146, 149.

[12] Richard Bauckham, The Theology of the Book of Revelation (Cambridge: CUP, 1993), 124–125.

[13] L. L. Thompson, The Book of Revelation: Apocalypse and Empire (Oxford: OUP, 1990); Richard Bauckham, “The Economic Critique of Rome in Revelation 18,” in Loveday Alexander (ed.), Images of Empire (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991), 47–90.

[14] Wes Howard-Brook, “Come Out, My People!” God’s Call out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2010), 466–471.

[15] Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003), 87–93. Italics in original.


Norman H. Young is a Seventh-day Adventist Christian theologian and New Testament scholar. He recently retired as senior lecturer at Avondale College in New South Wales, Australia.

Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel on Unsplash


We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.

Subscribe to our newsletter
Spectrum Newsletter: The latest Adventist news at your fingertips.
This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.