Revelation 6 – the First Six Seals

We are about to go on historical and prophetic adventure in Revelation, examining the first six seals as each one was opened by Jesus Christ. It is asserted here that these six seals lead us through the history of the Roman Empire up to the conversion of Constantine to Christianity. This event saw the Roman State gradually change from a military machine that considered itself dependent upon the support of the traditional gods to a state with quite difficult objectives and motivations. Indeed, before Constantine, the Romans believed that their particular reverence towards the traditional gods lay behind their success in war. So it happened that the emperors, in particular, were careful to ensure that the gods were respected, particularly when war was in prospect. While this was not such an important issue in the first century a.d., it became an issue again when Emperor Trajan decided upon a policy of extending the borders of the Empire.

First Seal

I watched as the Lamb opened the first of the seven seals. Then I heard one of the four living creatures say in a voice like thunder, “Come!” I looked, and there was a white horse before me! Its rider held a bow, and he was given a crown, and he rode out as a conqueror bent on conquest. (Rev. 6:1-2 NIV)

So Trajan began by incorporating the client kingdom of Dacia into the Empire. This required a war of conquest. After this Trajan planned a war against the Parthian rulers of Persia. Meanwhile, we learn from Pliny that Trajan authorised the arrest and execution of Christians in the province of Bithynia. The link here is direct and positive: the Romans believed that success in war would not be achieved if those who denied the reality of the old gods were allowed to act with impunity. Acting under Trajan’s orders, Pliny was pleased to report to him that the traditional temples were now being attended by great crowds of people, and they were no longer being ignored by the people of Bithynia. From Trajan’s reports, we can perceive that Christianity was quite strong in that province before his actions, and greatly weakened by his actions.

For the rest of the second century and into the third, there were severe persecutions of Christians, but they were localized. The most notable were the persecution of Christians in Smyrna in 154, in Lugdunum and Vienna in Gaul in 177, and in Egypt in 202.

Second Seal

To these “provincial actions” we can add the persecution under Maximinus Thrax, in 235-238. He replaced Emperor Alexander, the last of the strong Severan dynasty, with his mother having shown considerable interest in Christianity. Alexander was killed by his own troops, who were not happy that Alexander was willing to pay tribute to their German opponents to avoid conflict. After killing Alexander, the troops raised Maximinus Thrax to the throne: he probably had little option than to accept. It was the beginning of instability with civil war breaking out from time to time, as rival claimants attempted to seize the imperial power.

As John had prophesied,

When the Lamb opened the second seal, I heard the second living creature say, “Come!” Then another horse came out, a fiery red one. Its rider was given power to take peace from the earth and to make men slay one each other. To him was given a large sword. (Rev. 6:3-4 NIV)

The year of Maximinus’ death, 238, is marked down as the year of the six emperors. While half of these operated in concert, it marked the end of the stability that Octavian, Augustus, had sought to impose, over 200 years earlier.
The last of these emperors, Gordon III, saw the restoration of some stability to the throne, but in 244 he died, while engaged in a war against the Sassanids, the successors of the Parthians, possibly at the hands of Roman soldiers.

Third Seal

Philip the Arab succeeded Gordon II. He settled the war against the Sassanids. On his return to Rome he began an enormous building programme, funded by increased taxation. During his reign, Rome celebrated its millennium with “Secular Games” of great pomp and circumstance. However, troubles for the Empire abounded, with the emperor facing Germanic incursions in Dacia and on the Danube, and war with the Sassanids starting again.

As John prophesied,

When the Lamb opened the third seal, I heard the third living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a black horse! Its rider was holding a pair of scales in his hand. Then I heard what sounded like a voice among the four living creatures, saying, “A quart of wheat for a day’s wages, and three quarts of barley for a day’s wages, and do not damage the oil and the wine. (Rev. 6:5-6 NIV)

Meanwhile, the Germanic invasions had resulted in former agricultural lands in Europe going out of cultivation. There can be little doubt that the rich were largely insulated against these troubles, as the prophecy indicates – their focus was upon taking personal advantage of the difficulties facing the empire, as the repeated revolts against the established rulers show.

After Philip was assassinated, the new emperor was Decius. Faced with a continuing and severe military challenge from Germanic invaders, Decius, decided that a new approach was needed. He concluded that an appeal had to be made to the traditional gods, and a new sign of continuing traditional respect of the Romans for these gods was required.

Decius quickly made his intentions known. Previously, when an emperor took office, all the officials of the Empire, in each province, were expected to make sacrifices in recognition of the new emperor’s authority and to confirm that they supported his regime. In 251, Decius went beyond this initial requirement. He determined to extend this ritual of sacrifice to every citizen of the Empire. From the chance survival of evidence, we know of details of persecutions arising from Decius’ decree in the provinces of Egypt, Asia and Galatia. From these records, Decius has gained a well-deserved reputation as a persecutor of Christians and a hater of the Church. Decius did not last long, but was defeated in battle, dying within two years of becoming emperor.

His successor, Valerian, did not attempt to repeat Decius’ strategy, but left the Christians in peace, at least until the Empire was under further threat from Germanic tribes. He also planned an attack on the Sassanids. So in 257 Valerian’s governors ordered that everyone in the Empire should “worship the gods who had preserved our sovereigns in their government.” Not wishing to act in a violent manner against all the Christians, Valerian focussed his attention firstly on the leaders of the Church, then on the prominent laymen amongst the Christians. These were threatened with loss of property, imprisonment and slavery. In 259, Valerian marched against the Sassanids, but was defeated and taken into captivity.

Fourth Seal

The continual return to civil war during the period from 235 to 251 had left the Roman Empire weakened. With Valerian’s capture by the Persian Sassanids in 260 the Empire nearly collapsed.

While it is hard to measure the impact of these events, John’s prophecy seems to have caught the desperation of the times:

When the Lamb opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth living creature say, “Come!” I looked, and there before me was a pale horse! Its rider was named Death, and Hades was following close behind him. They were given the power over a fourth of the earth to kill by sword, famine and plague, and by the wild beasts of the earth. (Rev. 6:7-8 NIV)

Facing this crisis, Valerian’s son, Gallienus, became emperor. Gallienus had to allow the more easterly provinces to be recovered by Odenathus, which he ruled virtually independently. A separate Gallic Empire was set up in Gaul. Nevertheless, Gallienus fought hard to restore the fortunes of the Empire, and had some success, despite facing multiple revolts and civil wars, finally being assassinated by those wishing to supplant him. Also noteworthy is that Gallienus and those that followed him, up to Diocletian, allowed Christians to practice their religion freely.

Fifth Seal

By 299, under Diocletian, the time was approaching for another attack on the Church. It was sparked by the officials who were designed to read the entrails of sacrificial animals, which were used to predict the future. The officials in charge complained that they were not able to read the entrails, blaming the Christians in the Imperial household. It was a risky step, but it worked. Diocletian immediately ordered all members of the court to offer the required sacrifices. He followed this up with the demand that all members of the army perform the sacrifices or face discharge. In 303 the so-called Great Persecution was launched. It began with the destruction of a particularly prominent church building in Diocletian’s capital of Nicomedia. It was followed by the demand that all Christian scriptures and places of worship be destroyed. It was not too long before Diocletian authorized provincial governors to take extraordinary actions against the Christians, including executing those who would not retreat from their obstinacy.

Diocletian retired from office in 305, and Galerius took his place as Augustus. Galerius’ sphere of influence was mostly in the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Galerius continued to persecute the Church. However, in 311, while dying in terrible agony from an illness, he brought the persecution to an end with his Edict of Toleration. In this, he asked the Christians to pray for his safety and for that of the empire.

Yet this was not the end. John, on the island of Patmos, wrote prophetically, declaring:

When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, ‘How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?’ Then each one of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow-servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed. (Rev. 6:9-11 NIV)

On Galerius’ death, Maximinus Daia, Galerius’ former Caesar, had supreme authority in the more easterly provinces. He immediately authorised provincial governors to renew the persecution of the Christians in spite of Galerius’ edict. Maximinus has been considered to be the worst of the persecutors. However, Christianity was not his only problem. He was also caught up in a fierce contest for control of the Roman Empire between Constantine, Licinius, Maxentius and himself.

Maxentius held Italy, and it was there that he was confronted with the military advances of Constantine. Aggressively crossing the Alps and moving towards Rome, Constantine took city after city in Italy. Meanwhile, Maxentius was waiting in Rome for Constantine’s advance, confident that the military and other resources that he had in Rome would be sufficient to defeat Constantine. Yet inside the city, the people began to turn against Maxentius, and to openly favour Constantine. Now more fearful of the outcome, Maxentius sought advice from the Sibylline Books. From these he received the advice that the enemy of the Romans would die that day. But which enemy? Since Maxentius was not popular on the grounds of higher taxes and depressed trade conditions, it is possible that this was perceived as a veiled ill omen for Maxentius. Did he ask himself, “Were the gods about to destroy him?” In any event, he believed that he had to take action, so he decided to leave the safety of the city walls and confront Constantine in battle, with each party facing the other across the Tiber.

Sixth Seal

On the eve of this battle, that of the Milvian Bridge, Constantine also was the recipient of “other-worldly” advice, which he believed predicted his own success in the forthcoming battle. Firstly it is said that he saw a vision of a cross emerging from the light of the sun. Secondly, he claimed to have had a dream ordering him to conquer under a particular banner. This banner was subsequently interpreted as the first two letters of the word “Christ” (Chi-Rho). Constantine obeyed the vision and had this symbol painted on the shields of all his soldiers. In the battle that followed, Constantine was victorious and Maxentius was drowned in the Tiber.

Meanwhile, the civil war raged on in the east. It came to a temporary end in 313, when Licinius defeated Maximinus Daia (in 313). In the settlement that followed, Licinius kept the stronger eastern half while Constantine kept the western half of the Roman Empire. This new peace was also the occasion for a new formal acceptance of the rights of Christians to openly worship as they wished. This was particularly important in the eastern half of the Roman Empire, since the Christians in the west had enjoyed peace for several years.

Constantine’s ambitions had not reached their end point with the defeat of Maxentius. He still wanted to take the eastern provinces from Licinius, with Licinius also having his own ambitions to supplant Constantine. By 323, Constantine was attacking Licinius in the latter’s own territory. By 324, Constantine had forced Licinius to withdraw to Bithynia, where he finally surrendered.

While Licinius had granted freedom of worship to people of all religions, it would be reasonable to assume that, in his realm, the traditional gods were still seen as the guarantors of military success. With Constantine, this was not the case. It is clear from his actions that he was more inclined to think that Jesus Christ was on his side, and that Jesus would, if necessary, guarantee him success in the war. The significance of this change is hard to exaggerate. It was the beginning of the fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy of the end of idolatry, when men and women would dramatically lose faith in the traditional gods.

Men will flee to caves in the rocks and to the holes in the ground from the dread of the LORD and the splendour of his majesty. In that day men will throw away to the rodents and the bats their idols of silver and idols of gold, they made to worship. They will flee to caverns in the rocks and to the overhanging crags from the dread of the LORD and the splendour of his majesty when he rises to shake the earth. (Isa. 2:19 RSV)

Yet the disaster that the leaders of the Romans could rightly have expected following the effective abandonment of the security of the protection of the traditional gods did not occur. Instead, the Roman State had relative peace for over 100 years. Or at least it did not launch major aggressive wars against its neighbours. This was to be a period of enormous numerical advance for the Church. It was also to be a period of doctrinal upheaval in which Constantine was to prove to be a significant player, perhaps believing like the emperors who had gone before him, that he needed divine help to be a successful ruler.

Constantine’s first foray into the field of Church politics was an attempt to broker peace between disputing factions in the Church in North Africa. His intervention did not help.

His second intervention was more significant. This was in relation to the controversy over the teachings of Arius. In this case, his advisers were divided. On the one side was Hosius of Cordoba; on the other side was Eusebius of Nicomedia. Yet the decision of the Council of Nicaea followed the will of the majority of the attending bishops, and also was in accord with the judgment of Hosius. The Council of Nicaea found itself to be totally opposed to the position supported by Eusebius of Nicomedia. Despite this, Eusebius lost nothing of his influence in Constantine’s court. This was probably because Constantine could see merit in Eusebius’ position, namely that God cannot suffer and therefore the incarnate Christ cannot be of the same substance as God. Despite this, Constantine kept faith all his life with the decision taken at Nicaea. It is true that Athanasius suffered under Constantine, but this was on account of Athanasius’ implacable opposition to the restoration of Arius, which Constantine probably could not understand.

Constantine was ruthless in his pursuit of power. It is hard to imagine that he could have achieved political and military success in any other way. In dealing with his sons and relatives he seems to have shown the same ruthlessness. So it is not surprising that those who succeeded him on the throne, in particular his son, Constantius, followed the same path. Unlike Constantine, Constantius considered himself to be the earthly head of the Church, and to possess wisdom that went beyond that possessed by all others. Such was the hubris that was a natural part of being Emperor! It was an expected outcome of his upbringing and the office that he held.

After Constantius died, Julian became emperor. Julian was nephew of Constantine, but not a direct descendant. Although his parents were Christians, Julian rejected Christianity, and longed to see the return of the traditional religion. He did his best to restore the old cults, in part by attempting to include what he considered to be the best parts of Christianity. This included trying to reproduce the care shown towards other Christians within the old cult system. It was a doomed effort, but nonetheless Julian’s ideals were respected by many, and represented the best defence of the old cults that had been presented, and would be presented in times to come. Julian rose to power through a military uprising against Constantius, and soon sought to reinforce his hold over the army by launching a war against the Sassanids. He also tried to expose the divisions within the Church by allowing all those exiled by Constantius to return to their own cities. (It did not have the desired effect, but laid the groundwork for a future reconciliation of the more moderate parties.) Julian’s experiment, returning the State to the old ways, ended with his death in Persia
So in conclusion we can say, looking back over the period since Constantine, there had been a radical change in the Roman State. This had not happened without attempts being made to change the outcome. Firstly, Maxentius’ had been defeated, even after calling upon the traditional gods to help him against Constantine: it is more likely that his contemporaries concluded they had deserted him. Secondly, as have Emperor Julian’s attempt to restore the traditional religion to its place of honour in the Roman State, but it fizzled after his death. Thirdly, the Roman Senate failed in an attempt to restore at least a part of the share in the government of the old gods. Even at this late date it would appear that most of the elite in the city of Rome had not accepted that the old gods no longer had a part to play. So they attempted to restore the Altar of Victory to the Senate. This led to an ill-fated attempt in 392-394 by Eugenius to gain and hold the Roman Imperium.

As John had said on Patmos,

I watched as he opened the sixth seal. There was a great earthquake. The sun turned black like sackcloth made of goat hair, the whole moon turned blood red, and the stars in the sky fell to earth, as late figs drop from a fig tree when shaken by a strong wind. The sky receded like a scroll, rolling up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and every slave and every free man hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand?” (Rev. 6:12-17 NIV)

No longer did the Roman State consider that its protection lay in the idols that they had believed sustained the nation. The situation of the Roman State had changed radically. In addition, I think we can fairly say, taking into account all of these events and symbols, that the conversion of Constantine to Christianity was part of God’s plan, and also led to the advancement of the Church.