Island Exile

Saturday, May 23rd, 2020

Sailboats in the Fog
Island Exile, Audio Version

Her husband Clemens was executed, by order of the emperor. Flavia Domitilla herself was put on a ship and sent into exile. The emperor had her banished to one of the remote islands off the western coast. Previous emperors had done the same thing. They just shooed away embarrassing or disobedient female relatives. Insufficiently loyal male relatives were usually executed, since alive they were perpetual contenders for the purple. Regrettably, although kin, the males must serve as a mortal example to other wanna-be usurpers. They must die. The females were less of a threat, though. Undesirable female relatives like Domitilla were sometimes shown pity and spared death. Instead, they were simply sent away, shipped into exile. Perhaps someday, if sufficiently remorseful, Domitilla might be be granted clemency. 

Domitilla had offended Uncle Domitian with her infidelity — not of the marital sort, but of the religious sort. Domitilla had withheld due devotion to the ancestral gods, the very gods who had made Rome so great. Like her husband, Domitilla refused to participate in the rites. She would no longer show devotion to Jupiter, Minerva, and the rest of the Roman pantheon. Though she be a near, dear relative of the emperor, Domitilla could not be exempted from punishment, neither her nor her husband. His disgraceful disloyalty to Roma and abhorrent infidelity to its gods meant deserved death, hers meant banishment.

But what about the children? Clemens and Domitilla had children. Emperor Domitian was by no means indifferent to their plight. At least two of Domitilla’s sons already had Domitian’s favor. He had deemed himself their godfather. The emperor himself had no living children. There was thus no heir apparent. Before their parents were even found guilty of treasonous infidelity, the boys had been adopted children by Uncle Emperor Domitian. He had embraced them, adopted them, and renamed them after his father and himself. The boys had been renamed Vespasian and Domitian. Emperor Domitian intended for one or both of the boys to take his place someday, to succeed him. At least one of the boys would someday wear the purple — provided they were loyal, faithful, and worthy, unlike their traitorous parents.    

But Domitilla had an unlikely avenger named Stephanus. Stephanus had been one of Domitilla’s household servants until his services were suspect. Stephanus was accused of stealing from her. Thereafter, Stephanus went rogue and joined the rebellion. He somehow joined up with a group of court conspirators who were plotting to kill Uncle Emperor Domitian. Stephanus either volunteered himself or was designated to do the bloody deed. And do the deed he did. But he himself died in the doing. 

Stephanus assassinated Uncle Emperor Domitian by stabbing him with a concealed dagger. But before he bled out and died, Domitian fought back and returned the favor. 

At news of his death, the Roman Senate was elated. They despised Domitian. And that’s an understatement. Domitian had been a sadistic and vile emperor. He had killed many of them. He had terrorized the rest. Shortly after his death, the Senate damned his memory. Everything that ever glorified Domitian was to be undone, taken down, scratched out, demolished, or scrubbed. Domitian be damned, for all eternity. So it was written, and so it was done.

Domitian was actually bald, and bothered by it.

While all this court intrigue may be interesting to Ancient Roman history buffs, what does it have to do with the Bible? Does it have anything to do with the Book of Revelation?

Yes, it does indeed have something to do with Book of Revelation. Brother Eusebius, who wrote the indispensable history of the early Church, says that Domitian was Emperor when the Book of Revelation was written. And Eusebius is probably right about that. Domitian banished Domitilla because of her infidelity to the Roman pantheon. Both the Greek Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church claim that Domitilla was actually a Christian convert and a martyr. Historians generally concur that Domitilla was a convert to Christianity. It seems very likely. If so, Domitilla was exiled because of her steadfast testimony for Christ, just like John, the author of Revelation. Both of them were exiled by decree of Domitian for their faith.      

John was exiled to Patmos.

But wait, there’s more — I would like to suggest the possibility that Emperor Domitian is even prophesied in the Old Testament. Domitian seems to fit the depiction of the arrogant eleventh king in Daniel 7:19-28. Domitian was the eleventh emperor of Rome. And Domitian did enact policies that resulted in the prosecution and persecution of Jews and Christians. 

Further explanation of what exactly Domitian did needs to wait for another blog post, though.

As a take away, realize that God was in control and at work through everything that occurred in those dark days. As a parent, I imagine the anxiety that Clemens and Domitilla must have felt when they were separated from their children by the Roman authorities. Clemens and Domitilla would have been sorely tempted to play along with Domitian’s demands. But they were steadfast. Otherwise, Clemens would have been spared and Domitilla would have stayed home. And we might never have heard of either of them.   

The Mark

Monday, May 11th, 2020

The Mark of the Beast
The Mark, Audio Version

In January 250AD the newly-proclaimed Emperor Decius issued a do-or-die decree, an urgent edict. Decius decreed that everyone in the empire must make a patriotic public offering. Each and every inhabitant of the empire was required to appear in person before a local magistrate in order to make an offering to the gods, for the new emperor. The wording of the edict really matters here: the offering was to be made to the officially recognized gods, for the emperor. Anyone who refused to make the required offering could face the consequence of torture and execution. Only Jews were exempted from the edict, not Christians.

This posed a real dilemma for the empire’s Christians. To comply with an order to pray to their own God for the emperor — that they could do. To appear before a local magistrate and offer their patriotic service or support or money — that they probably could do. But to make a public offering to the pantheon of traditional gods — no, they could not do that, at least not in good conscience. It was a clear violation of a sacred command. God alone was to be worshiped. The emperor’s decree and God’s command were thus irreconcilable. They could obey the emperor or they could obey God; but they could not obey both in this. Christ is Lord, not Caesar, not Emperor Decius, nor his pantheon of officially-sanctioned gods. 

Was Decius Foretold? See Revelation 17:10-11.

Nonetheless, for fear of severe punishment and loss, some Christians reluctantly complied with Decius’s decree. They capitulated and made the required offering. Others, though, held fast to their convictions and refused to make the offering, knowing they were likely to be subjected to torture and execution. And many of them were indeed tortured and martyred, including Fabian, the Bishop of Rome. 

By Revelation’s reckoning, anyone who did comply with the edict thereby took the mark of the beast. Even if they made the offering reluctantly, they yielded to an early version, or prototype, of the mark of the beast. Was it forgivable? Probably so, at least back then. It might not be in the future.

Do recognize that my last paragraph makes a couple of very strong claims. To some of my readers, they may seem completely wrong, or at least too sweeping. How is making a coerced pagan sacrifice equal to taking the mark of the beast? That is a good question, and worth pursuing.

Those who made the sacrifice for the Emperor Decius were given an official certificate called a libellus. Copies of such certificates have survived through the centuries. Those who made the sacrifices would have kept their certificates on hand. They would not have literally kept the certificates strapped to one of their hands. But they would have kept the certificates with them, as a means of ready self-protection against accusation. They kept official certificates that notarized their participation in a pagan ritual where? They kept them on hand, in case they needed them.

Now, fast forward many centuries to the Third Reich and the Nazis. How were Germans taught to show their loyalty to their Führer? With their extended right hand. To avoid any suspicion and to show expected allegiance, they need only raise their right hand in salute of their leader and say two words. Was their salute actually the mark of the beast? Well, it leaned in that direction. It was not necessarily the mark of the beast for everyone who ever did it, because it did not require a deliberate choice against Christ. However, if someone did make a deliberate choice against Christ, such a salute might constitute something akin to the mark of the beast.

From my reading of the Book of Revelation and history, I submit that the ultimate mark of the beast is to be conveyed in a public ceremony, rite, ordeal, or trial. It indicates to all that the recipient has consciously and deliberately repudiated Christ and given his or her allegiance to another master — even if that decision is coerced and made in duress. The mark thus functions as an anti-baptism. It might involve a literal, physical brand or distinguishing mark of some sort, but not necessarily. Whatever form it takes, it is to be avoided absolutely, even if that means enduring a painful death. We see precursors of it now, whenever someone must officially repudiate faith in Christ in order to get ahead, stay afloat, or save their skin. Yes, the prospect of being in such a do-or-die situation is a scary thought. But Christians are called to count the cost, and stay faithful, even unto death.

Witnesses, Martyrs

Wednesday, April 15th, 2020

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John – to the seven churches that are in Asia:

Grace to you and peace

From Him who is and who was and who is to come,

And from the Seven Spirits who are before His throne

And from Jesus Christ,

The Faithful Witness, the Firstborn from the dead, the Ruler of the kings of the earth.

Revelation 1:4-5a

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Snow is falling outside as I write this.

Yes, seasonally, spring has already arrived, along with nest-building robins, emerging tree buds, and even pesky buzzing bugs. The calendar reads April 15th, or midway through the month, the ides of April. But without fail here in the great, picturesque State of Michigan, winter will not go down without a fight. Annually, it feels the need to take a parting shot, right about now. So the snow silently asserts itself, once more.

At least an inch has accumulated since yesterday. Here is some photographic evidence:

April Snow

Most of the people who receive this column live nearby in Michigan, so, as locals, you know all this talk of snow on April 15th, 2020 is true and accurate. You need only look out the window. There it is. But some of the people who receive this column live somewhere elsewhere. Unless they have another source to verify what I am saying, they cannot be 100% certain that what I’m reporting is true and accurate. They may wonder. They may have their doubts.

Perhaps I am mistaken. Perhaps I am deluded. Perhaps for some nefarious reason I want to mislead my readers about the current weather conditions where I and my family reside. Perhaps I am giving you second-hand information, which I believe to be true but is not.

Nope. I’m giving you accurate, first-hand information. My weather report is not misleading. At least on this point, I’m a wholly reliable witness. It’s exactly as I say. You should believe me.

But if you’re a suspicious sort and inclined to doubt me, find another reliable witness. I can suggest some, if you’d like. The Weather Channel comes immediately to mind.

By now, you may have guessed that today’s theological word, and the subject of this column, is witness. Congratulations! That’s right. I want to talk to you today about the word witness. If you were to read the Book of Revelation in its original language, you would discover that the word routinely translated as witness is actually the word martyr. Originally, the word martyr simply referred to a witness, to someone who gives testimony to something they have seen or heard. That’s it. There’s nothing more to it. In its original meaning, a martyr is simply someone who reports what he or she has seen or heard firsthand. Only later did the word martyr morph into how we understand it now. That being, someone who dies for what they believe. Martyr did not originally mean that. Only later did it take that connotation.

In the Book of Revelation, Jesus Christ is the original martyr. He is the faithful and true witness. Jesus faithfully relayed what he saw and heard to his audience. His testimony was (and is) true, accurate, and trustworthy. In addition to that, Jesus was slain exactly because of his testimony. His testimony was rejected. It was not believed. People thought his testimony not to be true, not to be accurate, and not to be trustworthy. Therefore, Jesus was also a martyr in that latter sense of the word, in the way we understand the word today. He was a martyr in both senses. Jesus Christ is the faithful martyr.

The Book of Revelation does not stop there, though. Martyrdom begins with Jesus but ends with the Church. What was true of Jesus will also be true of us. As followers of Christ, we can also expect to be martyrs. This is an important theme throughout the Book of Revelation, as I will show you in the next episode of the DeKrakenator Daily.

But until then, realize that I primarily mean martyrdom in the original sense of the word. We must be faithful as witnesses, faithful in our testimony to others. We have a job, a calling. One of the primary reasons we are here on the planet is to serve as witnesses for Christ. Years ago, I heard a pastor say that the only reason God keeps us, as Christians, here below is to serve as witnesses to those who do not yet believe. While that might be an overstatement and an over-simplification, it is nonetheless insightful and important. Paul once said that it would be better by far to depart and be with Christ, but that he intends to stick around for the sake of fruitful ministry (see Philippians 1:21-26). We would do well to be like-minded. We should be deliberate and intentional about our testimony, and be diligent to do it, while we still can.

As for martyrdom in the latter sense of the word, we are indeed called to die. But most of us will probably not need to die a violent, public death. Instead, our martyrdom is likely to be a daily death of ego, here and there, now and then, quiet and unnoticed. It will be martyrdom all the same, though; and it will be because we choose to be faithful and true to the One who was and is the Faithful and True Witness.