Christians are familiar with terms like god, savior, and gospel. They are part of our liturgical lingo. We use them in every Sunday service to refer to the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth. But what Christians may not know is that these terms were part of the stock vocabulary of pagans living in places like the Roman province of Asia (modern day Turkey; think Ephesus, Colossae, Laodicea). In fact, these particular terms were in circulation before Jesus was even born, and they were used to refer to someone other than Jesus.
In his book Imperial Cults and the Apocalypse of John: Reading Revelation in the Ruins, Steven J. Friesen discusses at length an example of how the terms mentioned above were applied to the Roman emperor. Specifically, he points readers to an inscription that dates back to around the year 9 B.C., which takes us prior to, but within a decade of, Christ’s birth in Bethlehem. From the inscription, we learn that the province had established a contest of sorts that granted a crown to the person who came up with the best idea on how to honor Augustus. That honor ended up going to the proconsul, Paullus Fabius Maximus, who suggested that the Asian calendar be re-organized around the emperor’s birthday. A decree was subsequently published, outlining the new calendar system.
At any rate, the inscription itself is helpful for modern Christians because it serves as a good example how the key terms mentioned above (god, savior, and gospel) were applied to the Roman emperor. I reproduce portions of the inscription below from Friesen’s translation, along with the relevant portions from the Greek, which can be found in Dittenberger’s Orientis Graeci Inscriptiones Selectae. Notice the language used to describe Caesar:
“Whereas the providence that ordains our whole life has established with zeal and distinction that which is most perfect in our life by bringing Augustus, who she filled with virtue as a benefaction to all humanity; sending to us and to those after us a savior [σωτῆρ] who put an end to war and brought order to all things […] the birth of the god [θεός] was the beginning of good tidings [εὐαγγέλιον; lit., “gospel”] to the world through him…”
Augustus is understood to be “a benefaction to all humanity.” He is a “savior” to people because, through his military might, he has “put an end to war” and, concomitantly, he brought peace to the world and “order to all things.” He is described as a “god,” whose birth was understood as “the beginning of good tidings to the world.”
To Christians, all of this sounds familiar. Compare Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus, which occurred a few years later:
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:1-14 ESV)
There is no getting around the obvious fact that Luke’s gospel is directly at odds with the claims of Caesar’s “gospel.” Whereas Caesar was proclaimed as a “god” worthy of veneration—the “savior,” who brought peace to the world—Luke and the early Christians proclaimed a counter narrative: Jesus, not Caesar, is the one who brings Good News.
Unlike Caesar’s “gospel,” which was founded upon war and violence, Jesus’ gospel is a gospel of the cross—a gospel of self-giving, enemy-embracing love (1 Cor. 1:17-19; Phil. 2:5-11; Lk. 23:34). Only Jesus brings true “peace” to the earth because he, through his cross and resurrection, has “disarmed the rulers and the authorities” and has therefore “overcome the world” (Col. 2:15; Jn. 16:33). As Luke records in his account, all the glory goes to “God in the highest.” And, for these early Christians, that God was most certainly not Caesar. Amen.
Addendum (Updated on Aug. 10, 2020):
There is one very important takeaway from this that modern Christians should consider. It is this: We should stay far away from using language that belongs exclusively to Christ and applying it to mortals and earthly institutions. I remember years ago hearing from evangelicals how President George W. Bush was “God’s anointed.” Today, I hear similar language applied to President Trump and his administration. Even when religious phrases are not explicitly used in this manner, but the sentiment is, this is still inappropriate. I recall left-wing folks doing this sort of thing when President Obama was in office (thus, the problem is hardly a conservative, right-wing one).
Moreover, it has become very common to employ religious words like “sacred” to describe one’s patriotism and love of country. The phrase “city on a hill” has a long history of being used to describe my own country (I highly doubt we were the first nation to do this, by the way). But this fails to take into consideration the biblical context of that phrase—namely, that it describes the Kingdom of God, not any kingdom of earth (Matt. 5:14). I even hear things like “the second amendment is a God-given right.” Curiously, I have never seen Scripture to support this statement, and yet it is the common grammar of many evangelicals. It is interesting how we are eager to enlist the language of “God” to legitimate our various political convictions. Respectfully, I must say that we should be more cautious about this.
It is absolutely true that we should respect our political leaders (1 Pt. 2:17), and we are certainly called to seek the welfare of the land of our exile (Jer. 29:7). But in the process of doing these things, we should absolutely refrain from employing language that is reserved for God and his Kingdom and applying it to earthly institutions. One reason is because it confuses the politics of the cross with the politics of this world. I don’t think it is a sin to be involved in the world’s politics, but I do think it is a sin to confuse it with the Kingdom’s.
I have always said that one sure way to ruin your country is to make too much of it (Prov. 16:18). Rome thought she was exceptional, and her emperors proclaimed that they—and they alone—were the world’s true hope for peace and security. Such pride and hubris proved to be their own undoing.
As a conservative evangelical Christian, it is alarming to me how many in my own tribe make similar mistakes. We uncritically employ and tolerate language reserved for God’s Kingdom and morph it into language for the State. This is eerie and icky. We ought to be more careful, for this sort of thing verges on the side of blasphemy, and—if left unchecked—will result in the displeasure of God.
In a political climate that calls us to put our nation “first,” perhaps Jesus’ own words are worthy of prayerful reflection: “Seek first the kingdom of God…” (Matt. 6:33). That’s our mandate. This sort of obedience will lead us to become that true and lasting “city on a hill.” If we are willing, by God’s grace, we may very well make it to the New Jerusalem. Amen.
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. See the entire discussion and subsequent analysis in Steven J. Friesen, Imperial Cults and the Apocalypse of John: Reading Revelation in the Ruins (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 32–36.
. Friesen, Imperial Cults and the Apocalypse of John, 34; Orientis Graeci Inscriptiones Selectae: Supplementum Sylloges Inscriptionum Graecarum (ed. W. Dittenberger; 2 Vols.; Leipzig: S. Hirzel, 1903–5), 458 1.36, 41–42.