Updated: Jun 27
Note: If you have followed our ministry for some time, you might remember this blog. It is one of the most fascinating parts of the history of the early believers. However, I have been on a biblical tour of Turkey this week and have learned so much more about the early church's struggle in dealing with the demanded Caesar worship.
Would you confess that Caesar is God to save your life? That was the choice many believers had to make in the first few centuries.
In the book of Revelation, John says: On The Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit… (Revelation 1:10, emphasis mine). The average believer reads this and assumes, “Sunday.” While it is true that the Church did eventually officially change the day of rest from the Sabbath (Ex. 20) to Sunday (the council of Laodicea [364 CE] made it official by even forbidding people to stop working on the Jewish sabbath!), it is highly unlikely the Jewish Galilean, John, forsook the Sabbath—the fourth commandment.
But there is another possibility shared by the great English expositor, David Pawson.
Once a year on a they called “the Lord's Day,” or literally, “The Lordly Day,” every Roman citizen had to stand before a bust of Caesar, raise his right arm, throw incense on the altar and say, “Caesar is lord”—three little words. That is the reference in revelation chapter one. “I was in the spirit on the Lord’s Day.” That is not Sunday. If you look at the phrase (in Greek) it was the Lordly Day, the day on which they all had to say, “Caesar is lord.”
The one religion that covered the entire Roman Empire was Caesar worship. Every emperor after Caesar was thought to be divine. Those who didn’t worship Caesar were considered atheists. The punishment for this depended on the current ruling Caesar. During the time of John’s imprisonment on the island of Patmos, Domitian was emperor of Rome. He was referred to in public documents as Our Lord and God.
In 96 CE, Domitian put to death his own cousin for being an atheist. It is widely believed his cousin was a believer and the accusation of atheism was for denying that Caesar was God. Domitian was the emperor who exiled John after he was unsuccessful at boiling him alive in a vat of oil.
Domitian took the idea of his own divinity very seriously.
He informed all governors that government announcements and proclamations must begin, “Our Lord and God, Domitian commands” … They must call Domitian God—or die. Thus, the issue was clear. It was a matter of gods. Either the Lord Jesus Christ or the emperor of Rome was Lord-God. It was Jesus or Caesar.
Other religions were tolerated, as long as they did not conflict with Caesar worship. One of the few peoples exempt from Caesar worship was the Jews. they looked at “Judaism as a religio licita (Lat. for “legal religion”), which later exempted it from the requirement of sacrificing to those emperors who came to believe themselves to be gods.”
Because Christians were originally seen as a sect of Judaism, they too were exempt from Caesar worship, until the explosive growth among the Gentiles. Eventually, faith in Jesus was seen by Rome as religio illicita—illegal religion. Thus, Christians were expected to embrace emperor worship, and “to refuse to say, ‘Caesar is Lord,’ was treason.”
As mentioned, Pawson says this yearly event was known to be The Lord’s Day. But why would John mention this? Certainly, it was not out of respect for Domitian! Pawson reminds us that “The whole of Revelation if really a handbook for martyrdom, to prepare the churches for the crisis of refusing to say, ‘Caesar is lord,’ and practicing a religio illicita.” The theme of the early chapters of Revelation encourages the believers to stand strong, even to the death, in the face of persecution. John himself had been exiled by Domitian because of his faith.
I, John, your brother and companion in the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus, was on the island of Patmos because of the Word of God and the testimony of Jesus. (Revelation 1:9)
He had suffered greatly for the gospel, having been boiled in oil—and survived. It is no accident that God chose to give this revelation to John on the day that virtually every believer would have a crucial decision to make: Caesar or Yeshua?
Those believers understood both the reference and its implication: “Many Christians were thrown to the lions, charged with atheism for refusing to sacrifice to the Emperor who claimed to be God.”
Confess with your Mouth
For many years, I thought that Romans 10:9 appeared just too simplistic: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Yeshua is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Romans 10:9). That’s it? Really? Just confess Him and believe?
However, once you understand the background of Caesar worship and the persecution it entailed, you realize Paul was asking them to change loyalties from Caesar to Jesus. In essence, confessing that Jesus is Lord is like saying, “I am willing to die for my faith.” The word for Lord here is kyrios, the same word used in confessing that Caesar was lord (kyrios). Yeshua -followers who refused to come and burn incense and make a sacrifice to Caesar were often arrested and killed. And it appears that this courage in the face of death had a powerful impact on the believers as the church exploded. “The church never grew so quickly as in those [first] 300 years.” Many believers hoped to die a martyr’s death. The Church Father Origen longed to die as his father did. “In 202 when his father, Leonidas, was beheaded for his Christian beliefs, Origen wanted to die as a martyr, too.” I maintain that as believers see the courage of martyrs like Stephen and Leonidas, a holy jealousy is transferred, and a grace to suffer is released.
What Paul is doing in Romans is indirectly confronting the issue of commitment, because to confess that you are serving Yeshua was equivalent to confessing that Caesar is, in fact, not your Lord. And that could get you a lunch meeting with a hungry lion in a Roman coliseum.
John and Domitian
As we get to the end of the first century, all of the apostles have been martyred, but John. As mentioned, John was boiled in oil and survived. Then Domitian exiled him to the island of Patmos where he receives his revelation. While we are not sure how much Domitian knew about John, it seems clear to me that he saw John as a real threat.
Many believe that after the death of Peter and Paul, John escaped Jerusalem at the outset of the Great Revolt that resulted in Jerusalem being destroyed. He fled to Ephesus, where he was received as an apostle. This gives him the authority to address the seven churches of Asia Minor. They knew John and loved John. "As the leader of the Asian church, John was targeted by Roman authorities and exiled to Patmos."
Domitian took Caesar worship to a new level. Initially, the Caesars only became gods after their death. "Gaius Caligula (37—41) was the first emperor to seek acclamation as a god during his lifetime, and his increasingly bizarre behavior led some to think he had gone mad.” For most Caesars, emperor worship was more political, to keep the unity (Pax Romana) in the empire. But Nero took it more seriously and then “Domitian in the mid-90s finally sought to establish the practice on a more widespread scale although even then it was short-lived.”
In Ephesus, they built a temple to Domitian that had a massive 27’ statue of the emperor. I was able to see the remains in the Ephesus Museum. The statue could be seen by land or sea, as people approached Ephesus. Domitian was convinced that he was “Lord and God” (Dominus et Deus).
Remains of the massive statue to honor Domitian that sat at the Temple created in his name.
John disses Domitian
John, of course, would never submit to Caesar worship. In fact, he came after the Domitian in writing Revelation. Caesar was referred to as autokrator, which means “one who rules by himself.” It is where we get the word autocrat. In modern Greek it means emperor. We see many inscriptions to the autokrator all over Turkey (and the former Roman Empire).
Inscription founds in Ephesus to Caesar, the autokrator.
When John refers to God, he often uses the word Pantokrator. In Revelation, John uses Pantokrator nine times in the Book of Revelation: 1:8, 4:8, 11:17, 15:3, 16:7, 16:14, 19:6, 19:15, and 21:22. And Paul uses it once (2 Cor. 6:18). Pantokrator means Ruler of all—including Domitian.
Building on Daniel and John, the book of Revelation takes us one step further. “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” That word, the Almighty, is actually “pantokrator” in Greek. It means the all-powerful, the ruler of everything. Christ, at long last, assumes the throne that is rightfully his. It is very likely that the author of Revelation uses the term “pantokrator” advisedly, in stark contrast to “autokrator,” or the self-ruler, the self-designation favoured by the Roman Emperors.
John is saying to Domitian, you may see yourself as the dictator over humanity, but there is one who is ruler over everything. The believers in the seven churches of Turkey (Asia Minor) would all pick up on that. John's primary immediate goal in Revelation is to encourage the people to submit to Jesus, not Domitian (false gods), even unto death!
 Church Councils solved controversy. They did not deal with every doctrine, just those about which people were arguing. They were meant to bring unity of doctrine to the Church. Therefore, if the Church felt the need to publish this, number 29 of 60 articles, it meant that there were significant numbers of believers who felt compelled to rest on the Jewish sabbath day. Here is the short text: “A Christian shall not stop work on the Sabbath, but on the Lord’s Day.” There is no scriptural justification for this, but simply the desire to denigrate Judaism. That is not to say that celebrating the Lord on Sunday is wrong—he rose on a Sunday. There is much freedom (Romans 14:5-6). But to forbid a believer to rest on the seventh day was a reactionary, unbiblical error of the Church. Notice, on such things, Paul doesn’t compel them to obey tradition or doctrine, but leaves it to each person to decide for themselves. With this decision, the council seeks to supersede Paul, who clearly continues to honor the Sabbath and OT holy days in his own life [Acts 20:6, 16, 27:9])
 David Pawson, Completing Luther’s Reformation (Reading: Anchor Recordings, 2017), 42. https://www.davidpawson.com/downloads/Completing_Luthers_Reformation_int.pdf
 Patrick M. Jones, Revelations From Revelations (Ringgold, Teach Services, 2008), 19.
 Craig Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels (Nashville, B&H Publishing Group, 2009), 20.
 Jones, 17.
 Pawson, 42.
 Jones, 17.
 Pawson, 42.
 Origen, Biblical scholar and philosopher," Christianity Today, accessed June 25, 2023, https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/scholarsandscientists/origen.html
 Blomberg, 41.
 Blomberg, 41.
Domitian took the idea O his own divinity very seriously. Cambridge, accessed on June 21, 2023, https://www.stbenetschurch.org/sermons/christ-the-king-2021