In the book of Daniel, written years before Rome burst on the world scene, a Jewish exile in Persia interpreted a dream for King Nebuchadnezzar. The dream featured a huge statue made of different layers of material: gold, silver, bronze, iron, and iron mixed with clay. Daniel’s interpretation revealed that each layer of the towering image represented a kingdom that would rise, with that golden section representing Babylon, the reigning superpower of that day. Comparing this sequence to history, we discover that the third world power after the Babylonians was Rome. Other than this prophetic vision, the Old Testament does not allude to or mention by name the Rome Empire. The Romans are mentioned in First and Second Maccabees, books written between the Old and New Testament during the time that Rome was overrunning the world.
NEW TESTAMENT EMPIRE
By the time of the New Testament, the Rome Empire had conquered much of the world and had established much of the world and had established order, which actually became a perfect environment in which the gospel of Jesus Christ could spread like wildfire. A glimpse of the pervasive power of Rome can be seen in the opening chapters of Luke’s Gospel:
At that time the Emperor Augustus ordered a census of the Roman Empire. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All the people went to register in the cities were their ancestors had lived. (Luke 2:1-3)
God used Rome to arrange for the movement of people that would ensure that his Son would be born in Bethlehem. The empire assumed the role of a powerful force behind the scenes that often participated in what God wanted to accomplish. So it came to be that a Roman ruler (Pilate) signed the death certificate that allowed the Jewish people to crucify Jesus. Later, Roman soldiers put Paul the apostle into protective custody and then transported him to Rome to appear before the emperor. Since Rome was the greatest city of the time, Paul could hardly wait to take the gospel to that place.
A NEW BABYLON
The book of Revelation seems to offer an added symbolic role for Rome. The original writing was symbolic role for Rome. The original writing was meant for first-century Christians to apply to their present circumstances as well as for the future, and we can see the similarities between the description of “Babylon” and some of the characteristics of Rome. Peter was the first to express the connection between the role of historical Babylon in the exile of Israel and the new Babylon (Rome) in the life of the growing church: “Your sister church in Babylon, chosen by God, and my son Mark send you greetings” (1 Pet 5:13). The power and ruthlessness of Rome could be seen as both an obstacle to and a vehicle for the spread of the gospel, just the way Babylon had both opposed God and been used by him.
By the time John wrote Revelation, official persecutions were already being carried out under the authority of the Roman Empire. Christianity was becoming an outlawed religion, curiously called “atheist” because believers refused to accept the divinity of the emperor! The observation in Revelation 17:6, “I saw that the woman was drunk with the blood of God’s holy people and of those who testify about Jesus,” accurately describes the conditions when Christians were being tortured and torn apart by beasts for the entertainment of the masses in Rome. Further on, John says, “In this situation a wise mind is needed. The seven heads are seven mountains on which the women is sitting” (Rev 17:9), a topographical clue that points to the capital of the empire. Rome was known as a city on seven hills. Many scholars believe references to Babylon in Revelation 14:8; 16:19; 17:5; and 18:2, 10, and 21 also apply to first-century Rome. Revelation seems to reveal much more than simply a veiled picture of conditions and an encouraging prophecy regarding the eventual fall of Rome. The powerful symbol of that city and the empire if represented loomed over the early Christians in a way that has become a pattern for believers across the centuries who must courageously keep the faith in the face of strong opposition from ruthless, pagan governments. Most ironic and perhaps even humorous is the fact that the seat of a major part of Christianity has for many centuries occupied the center of Rome. God has demonstrated through history that his use of symbols can take unexpected turns and is never mechanical. God remains the ultimate creative Author in the unfolding of his plan for those made in his image.