Revelation 1:9: “I, John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation ….”
Persecution: Roman or Jewish?
Is the persecution alluded to in the Book of Revelation from the Romans or from the Jews?* Many theologians and secular historians suppose that the persecution was from Rome. Others agree that if the Apocalypse “does refer to conditions in Asia Minor under Domitian it is the only source for such a persecution,” (Cary and Scullard, A History of Rome, pages 153.)
What do the New Testament and the Book of Revelation actually say about persecution of Christians? The theme of tribulation is first sounded in Revelation 1:9:
I, John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.
References to persecution in the Book of Acts reveal Jewish, not Roman, persecution. The Book of Acts was probably written after Paul’s imprisonment at Rome, probably 62-68 AD, but not later than the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. It is probable that both Peter and Paul were victims of Nero’s persecution of Christians in Rome after the fire of 64. However, Acts must have been written before that time as Paul’s death is not mentioned. If the Book of Revelation were written in this same era, then Acts should make a relevant document for comparison of the theme of persecution. The source of persecution of the saints would most likely be the same in both books.
Bible References to Persecution of Christians*
References to persecution in Acts are as follows: Acts 4:3, 18, 21, 29, arrests and trials; 5:17-18, 33, 40, arrests, trials, beatings; 6:9-14, 7:54; 57-8:1, martyrdom of Stephen and persecution of the Church; 8:3, the Church ravaged and Christians imprisoned; 9:1-2, 13-14, 21, 23, Saul/Paul’s acts of persecution; 12:1-11; 13:45, 50; 14:5 (Jews with Gentiles), 19, 22; 15:26; 17:5-9, 13, 17; 18:6, 12; 19:9, 13-14, 33; 20:3, 19; 21:11, 27-35; 22:4, 22-25, 30; 23:12-35; 24:1-9, 24, 27; 25:2, 7-9, 15, 24; 26:9-11, 21; 28:19. (See above also for the list of references to the crucifixion of Christ since the crucifixion of Christ was attributed to “the Jews.” See also Acts 2:23, 36; 3:13-15; 4:10-11, 26-28; 5:30; 6:52; 10:40; 13:27-29).
Further allusions or references to persecution or tribulation in the Book of Revelation are: Revelation 2:9-13; 2:22; 3:9-10; 6:9-11; 7:14; 11:7-10; 12:4, 11, 13, 15, 17; 13:7; 15-17; 16:5-6; 17:2, 4, 6, 14; 18: 3-4, 6, 9, 20, 24; 19:2; 20:4; 21:4; 22:15.[i]Of these, 2:9-13 and 3:9 clearly refer directly to Jewish persecution. In addition to these, references to the martyrdom of Christ might also be seen as references to Jewish persecution. References to Christ’s martyrdom are as follows: 1:5, 7, 18; 2:8; 5:6, 9. The question remains as to whether or not the remaining references pertain to Roman persecution.
Christians as Good Citizens of Rome
As Harold Lindsell has pointed out: “The author [of Acts] is careful to point out that the Christians were not enemies of the Empire: every time the missionaries were brought before Roman authorities they were absolved of all charges of sedition or insurrection.”**
If there had been severe persecution from Rome, surely there would have been some mention of it here. But instead we find that in every case the persecution is from “the Jews” or by their instigation. Since the persecution in the Book of Acts is from the Jews, not the Romans, why should we attribute that of the Book of Revelation to the Romans?
The Book of I Peter was also written in this same era, [AD 63-67], and has a strong theme of persecution. The addressees are Christians in northern Asia Minor, (see below), just as the Book of Revelation is addressed to the seven Churches in southern Asia Minor. Since the dates are similar and the addressees are similar, the source of persecution would very likely be the same. References to persecution in I Peter are as follows: 1:6; 3:9, 13-18; 4:1-2, 12-19. Was this persecution from Rome? It hardly seems so from the admonition in 2:13-15:
Submit yourselves to every ordinance of man for the Lord’s sake: whether it be to the king, as supreme; 14 Or unto governors, as unto them that are sent by him for the punishment of evildoers, and for the praise of them that do well. 15 For so is the will of God, that with well doing ye may put to silence the ignorance of foolish men.
Here Roman authorities are seen to be friends of Christianity.
Jews of the Dispersion
It should be noted that I Peter is addressed to the “exiles of the Dispersion” specifically those in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, that is, northern Asia Minor. The term “exiles of the Dispersion” is used specifically of Jews who have left Judea to live in another land. The affairs in Judea at this particular time were such that many who were Christians fled from the political anarchy, religious persecution, and economic deprivation. Pontus and Asia are specifically named in Acts 2:9 as places from which Jews had come to Jerusalem for the feast of Pentecost. It is therefore likely that those who later fled from Judea went to areas where Jews already lived.
Indeed, we know from Paul’s missionary journeys that there were Jewish synagogues throughout the Roman world. Many of these colonies in the Dispersion were more populous than in Judea itself. There were especially large colonies in Babylon and Alexandria. It is therefore evident that the persecutions in all the far-flung nations of the Roman world could have been by the Jews or at their instigation. (See Acts 2:5-11; 6:9; of Christian Jews 8:1, 4-5; 11:19.)
The Testimony of Peter
Peter is expecting the “end,” that is, the end of the times predicted by Daniel for the destruction of the nation of Israel and its Temple: “But the end of all things is at hand: be ye therefore sober, and watch unto prayer,” I Peter 4:7. In the same way the Book of Revelation is about that “appointed time” of the end, “the time is at hand.” Revelation 1:3.
First Peter speaks specifically of the “Revelation of Jesus Christ“: in salvation, (1:5, 7, 13); and in glory, (5:1). He believed this “Revelation” was “at hand.” With Jeremiah 25:17-18 in view Peter says:
For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, [i.e. the Jews], what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? I Peter 4:17.
* References are not necessarily exhaustive.
**Harold Lindsell, “Introduction to the Acts of the Apostles,” Harper’s Study Bible, RSV, (Grand Rapids Michigan, Zondervan Bible Publishers, 1981), p. 1625.