The Politics and Economics of The Book of Revelation
An essay by Adam Bamforth.
The book of Revelation is regarded as the most explicit counter-imperial book of the New Testament. One of the key focus areas for the author, (John), was how the churches of Asia Minor were to live under the Roman political and economic structures that had been established during this time. These structures had led to a society that aspired to have wealth, power, and influence, but that only a few, (the elite) held.
John was concerned with the impact of this power and the consequences arising from idolatry that was linked to the trade and commerce happening in the region. This included social and economic injustice of, but not limited to, Christians. Rome had stepped beyond its role of government, and its power had exceeded “its proper bounds, (…) [and was] the most tangible embodiment of satanic power.”
Politically, Rome had ruled Asia Minor since 133 BCE. Rome gained loyalty through providing various benefits to the provincial areas where the elites cooperated. It also provided some opportunities for those who wanted to obtain positions of influence.  Economically, Rome had provided better access to markets through improved roads, as well as reducing piracy, making sea travel safer.
These factors had created prosperous cities and ports (e.g. Ephesus and Smyrna) and with this came the opportunity to progress and improve a person’s status within society. Commerce and trade, as a merchant or a seafarer, was the easiest way to achieve wealth, power, and influence. John’s chief concern was what would be the cost from a moral, ethical and spiritual point of view?
A desire to seek progression through wealth meant engaging in the culture and this meant taking part in the Imperial cult and the political and economic structures. This included worship of the Emperor and the other gods. This idolatry heavily conflicted with the loyalties of the monotheists in the society (Jews and Christians). Through the addresses to the seven churches its seen that idolatry is starting to take place with references to Balaam, (Rev 2:14) and Jezebel, (Rev 2:20).
Throughout the book of Revelation John uses various ciphers to code the message. First, there is a dragon, representing Satan (Rev 12:3-18). John, from his location on the island of Patmos, would have seen a continuous flow of ships travelling between Rome and the provincial area of Asia Minor and beyond. He stands on the shore with the dragon, as a beast comes out of the sea (Rev 13:1-10). The beast has seven heads, (Rev 13:1), symbolising the seven hills of Rome, (Rev 17:9). Satan (Rev 12:9) makes war against God’s people, (Rev 13:7), and the beast from the sea gains its power, Satan’s throne and great authority from the dragon, (13:2).
What follows is another beast, this time from the earth, (Rev 13:11-18). This beast represents “the imperial cults that were so strongly developed in the province of Asia.” These two beasts work together and support each other. The beast of the sea needs the beast of the land to impose itself. This happens through the promotion of festivals, shrines, temples, and elaborate ceremonies that provide divine honours upon the Roman Emperors. Money to build cult temples came from wealthy provincial families, while the priests often came from the local elite.
To complete this imagery, there is a fourth entity. This time it is an Old Testament reference, Babylon. Throughout the book of Revelation Babylon can be interpreted as Rome, and in fact is described as ‘the great city’, (Rev 16:19).  There is however further complexity to this imagery. Babylon also represents the Roman Imperial commerce structure, and in particular, the side of this that creates enormous economic opportunity for the few, benefitting the elite, while draining the provincial areas.
The dragon, the beasts, and Babylon work together to facilitate Babylon’s immoral commerce, (Rev 17:2). It is Babylon that is depicted as a whore, (Rev 17:5), leading to her “alluring and seductive nature,” (Rev 18). Babylon controls the beasts and the multitudes by powerful influence. ‘I sit enthroned as queen.’ (Rev 18:7) implies sovereignty in direct opposition to the worthiness of the slain Lamb (Rev 5:6). The desire for wealth is drawing people into the worship of the Emperor and the gods and encouraging “religious promiscuity.” The wealth is making people blind (Rev 3:17), to the consequences of her actions (Rev 18:8). The beast from the earth is drunk from her wine, (Rev 18:3) highlighting its own permissive consumption. This is beyond just luxury items that entered the ports of Asia Minor but originated from further afield. Ordinary items such as olive oil and grain created an overindulgent fixation which led to injustice, idolatry, and greed.
Using the comparison between Smyrna, (Rev 2:8-11) and Laodicea, (Rev 3:14-19) and even Philadelphia who had little power, (3:8), but who received divine approval, there was a newly rich provincial group being established. The mix of the elite was also changing with an increased number of easterners holding office. Laodicea had become wealthy (Rev 3:18) recording their desire to obtain wealth, power, and influence. If Christians made acquiring wealth their primary goal, then their relationships with trade associations and clients would be far more important than their bonds with believers who lacked resources.
Revelation 18 presents the demise of Babylon with a particular focus on merchants, shipmasters, and sailors. Sailing and Maritime was critical to the economic structure Rome had established and was the most important trade guild of the Imperial government. Trade guilds paid homage to the Emperor (as well as their patron gods), and “if Christians did not participate in such homage, they were economically ostracised and prevented from practicing their trade.”
It is the allure and attraction of Rome’s commerce that John foresees will be a challenge for the followers of Christ. John’s focus on this subject suggests that it’s already happening or that there is a real risk of this happening. John is providing this as a pastoral warning that there must be an avoidance or abstinence from the influences of the Imperial cult, otherwise they will share in the guilt and punishment that is coming. John refuses to be pragmatic. This must therefore be seen as an important discipleship issue for the wider body of Christ and one that presents a practical dilemma for Christian entrepreneurs today. How far should we pursue business interests when dealing with the secular world? John’s idea seems to be one of radical separation, (Rev 18:4). The language used in Revelation 18:4 draws on Isaiah 48:20 and uses Jeremiah 51:45. "Leave Babylon” and “Come out of her, my people!” In contrast to this is a later command to “come” into the New Jeruselum, (22:17). A boycott may lead to the possibility of not progressing up the social ladder or worse, lead to persecution.
John does not see wealth being the reason for God’s judgement in isolation, but rather the boasting and the arrogant use of that wealth, and the misuse of the power and influence it provides. This leads to a trust in the security that the wealth brings, which is idolatry, even without the link to the Roman Imperial commerce structure and Emperor worship.
To worship ("proskuneo") is to bend the knee and is a command that is irresistible because of the lure and power of Babylon as it flaunts its glory. John calls us to give allegiance to an alternative society in the New Jeruselum, where there will be economic justice. Where the pursuit of wealth will not undermine the cohesiveness of the Christian community by prioritising relationships based on trade over those based on a shared faith.
Wealth is addressed heavily across the book of Revelation signalling its importance to early Christians and how they are to engage in the Roman Imperial commerce structure. It isn’t just the concern of the desire to obtain it, but it is also the devastating results experienced by people through the lauded arrogance of the elite. With rich and poor within the faith community it was important that any privilege and wealth did not upset the unity they had. The critical concern was the direct fornication with Emperor worship and the idolatry that must take place for any Christian to progress within the society. The same questions must be asked about the idols and ethics of economic empires today and our involvement in them.
Keeping the thinking going
Do governments and economic institutes act in ways that demand idolatrous allegiance?
Which Empire (large or small) build its own security at the expense of defenseless people?
What to do when a government seeks support for acts of violence or nationalistic self-interest?
What ideology or pseudo-religion do political and economic power use to justify their deeds?
How can we be tempted to take part or benefit?
Beale, G. K. Book of Revelation: A Commentary on the Greek Text. Reprint edition. Eerdmans Publishing, 2013.
Cullmann, Oscar. The State in The New Testament. London: SCM Press Ltd, 1956.
Horsley, Richard A., ed. In the Shadow of Empire: Reclaiming the Bible as a History of Faithful Resistance. Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.
Keener, Craig S. Revelation. NIV Application Commentary Series. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2000.
Koester, Craig R. Revelation: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.
Kraybill, J. Nelson. Imperial Cult and Commerce in John’s Apocalypse. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1996.
 Horsley, In the Shadow of Empire, 157.  Kraybill, Imperial Cult and Commerce in John’s Apocalypse, 29.  Cullmann, The State in The New Testament, 73.  These included providing tax relief during times of disaster and constructing public buildings and water systems  Koester, Revelation: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, 93.  This could have ranged from attending Temple precincts and dining rooms to transacting business deals through the network formed through the worship idols. May have even meant participating in the sacrifices and/or eating ‘idol meat’ at the trade guild meals.  Several other Jewish and Christian writers used Babylon as a cipher for Rome. Horsley p166 identifies 1 Peter 5:13, 2 Bar, 4 Ezra, Sib. Or. 5.143, 159.  Kraybill, Imperial Cult and Commerce in John’s Apocalypse, 15.  Horsley, In the Shadow of Empire, 158.  Cullmann, The State in The New Testament, 73. The beast from the sea is Rome, but also represents every totalitarian power throughout history.  Horsley, In the Shadow of Empire, 166.  Horsley, 158.  Kraybill, Imperial Cult and Commerce in John’s Apocalypse, 61.  Babylon is beyond just being a great city in John’s vision as it also links to the idolatry found in Tyre and the ungodly economic alliances involving idolatry (Isaiah 14:12; 23:17). This immoral influence in Tyre helps to emphasize economic idolatry in general, Beale, Book of Revelation, 915.  While not identical, there are parallels between Babylon and Rome that help to support this. Babylon set fire to the temple, executed and captured the people of Israel (e.g. 2 Kings 24:10-25:21), while Rome destroyed the temple and persecuted the people (Rev 13:10, 18:24).  Beale, Book of Revelation, 924. As this theme of Babylon is extrapolated out it can be supported that Babylon is not just a satanic first century Empire (Rome), but rather an exploitative worldwide system that continues to exist today and that will continue until Jesus returns.  Koester, Revelation: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, 102.  Beale, Book of Revelation, 848. In addition to this, the woman, (Rev 17:4) is dressed in several items found in the cargo, (Rev 18:12), Beale, 854-855.  Koester, Revelation: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, 103.  Another industry that was thriving was textiles, however grain created tensions between Rome and the people of Asia Minor because it took a lot of land to farm and the people of Rome received free grain. This left Asia Minor with a shortage, resulting in them having to import more expensive grain from Egypt and Black Sea area. Kraybill, 66-67.  Keener, Revelation, 203-204. The third horse, Famine (Rev 6:5) provides further insight into the trade and commodities of Asia Minor. Grain is expensive for the locals due to availability, while wine and oil is plentiful and profitable. Emperor Domitian attempted to restrict the volume of vineyards due to the abundance of this luxury product.  Kraybill, Imperial Cult and Commerce in John’s Apocalypse, 103-106.  Kraybill, 20.  Koester, Revelation: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, 103.  Kraybill, Imperial Cult and Commerce in John’s Apocalypse, 117–18.  Beale, Book of Revelation, 856.  Kraybill, Imperial Cult and Commerce in John’s Apocalypse, 22.  Kraybill, 139.  Horsley, In the Shadow of Empire, 170.  There are also plenty of references to purity, for example the clean garments found in the letter to Sardis (Rev 3:4-5). Participation makes the guilty unclean and disqualifies them from entering ‘the holy city’ as God’s children, (21:2-10). Faithful believers now suffering through poverty and powerlessness will enjoy wealth and safety in New Jeruselum, (Rev 21:9-27).  Some of the seven churches are commended when they have not been influenced by this culture. Kraybill, Imperial Cult and Commerce in John’s Apocalypse, 137,201.  Beale, Book of Revelation, 924.  Horsley, In the Shadow of Empire, 158.  Kraybill, Imperial Cult and Commerce in John’s Apocalypse, 17.