In Revelation 1:5, the writer, John, gives Jesus Christ three unusual titles. It is the last of these I want to pick up on: the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.
A grand sounding title, and on the face of it an elevated position, but the resonance of this mighty name to the early readers of this final book of the New Testament shouldn’t be overlooked.
John wrote his Revelation to seven churches in the Roman province of Asia. Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamum, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea are cities in what is modern day Turkey. In the first century, however, they were cities on the prosperous Ionian coast, a region that had belonged to the mighty Roman Empire for several hundred years.
These cities thrived on major trade routes, enjoyed prosperous regional government, and faced up to powerful local demagogues, all under the rule of an increasingly powerful Imperial throne. John likely wrote Revelation during the reign of Domitian (81-96 AD). Traditionally seen as a reign characterised by religious persecution (Eusebius, the 4th century historian, strongly advanced this view) it seems more likely that such persecution was more localised, but regardless of its spread, there were clearly tough times for the faithful church.
John’s Revelation is written to seven struggling churches. Facing persecution, struggles, false teachers and assaults both internal and external, John writes to challenge and encourage. So when he writes ‘ruler of the kings of the earth’, what would that have meant to these young, struggling churches?
In 112 AD, the then governor of Bithynia and Pontus, a man named Pliny the Younger, wrote to the Emperor Trajan. Though several decades after the time of Revelation, and in a province to the North of modern day Turkey, rather than the West, the letters of Pliny provide a small window into the contemporary situation faced by the seven churches John addresses. Pliny writes to his Emperor, detailing how he rounded up Christians and tried them. The charges seem to have been nothing more than simply being a Christian.
“I interrogated them whether they were Christians; if they confessed it I repeated the question twice again, adding the threat of capital punishment; if they still persevered, I ordered them to be executed.”
Pliny the Younger, Ep.96.
Judging by the replies Pliny records, Trajan was not particularly interested in this matter of provincial justice, but it highlights just how powerful local rulers could be. Pliny executed Christians for confessing their faith, and refusing to recant. No other ‘crime’ is recorded. The seven churches of Revelation faced similarly powerful local govenment. Imperial officials carried behind them the weight of Rome, and their decisions could very quickly become life and death. For John to label Jesus Christ the Ruler of such figures would have been a mighty comfort. Even in the backwaters of Asia Minor, Christ was sovereign over the kings, emperors, governors and officials. No government can stand up to Christ, so take heart, wrote John, because the faithful are in Christ.
The True Emperor
The greatest source of power in the ancient world was of course the Emperor himself. A supreme ruler with a quasi-divine statues, the Roman Emperor was sovereign over almost all of the known Western World. Domitian, the Emperor at the likely time of writing for Revelation, was particularly powerful. Previous struggles for the imperial throne were forgotten, the Flavian Dynasty had now ruled for around fifteen years, and strengthened the power of the throne. Domitian was an authoritarian figure, regularly overruling the Senate, and reinstituting the idea of the Imperial cult – that the Emperor and his household were divine.
With such a powerful Emperor, one who even declared himself to be a god, how could such a small group of churches in Asia Minor stand any chance? Because on their side was the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.
The Emperor looked all powerful. Christ was.
The Emperor claimed to be divine. Christ was.
The Emperor claimed to be sovereign over the Earth. Christ is.
John could give Jesus such a powerful name because it was true. He was the exalted Lord of all creation. All powers and authorities stem from Him. The seven suffering churches of Asia Minor could cling on to this King because He was the True King. They knew that. They may have to suffer for it, but they knew it.
As Paul wrote only a few decades before John’s letter:
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
God’s True King truly reigns, and one day even the most powerful Emperor will come to see that to be true.
What About Us?
We still live in a world of kings and powers. They might no longer be Emperors, but through politicians, celebrities, business billionaires and tech giants, our lives can very often feel ruled over. Christians across the world face very real persecution to this day. For some this means life and death, for others it means losing their job, their families or their homes.
We make kingdoms of our own too. We try to push ourselves ahead of others, we try to rule those we consider beneath us. Whether in business, family or some other sphere, we humans love to envisage ourselves as our own rulers. Kings and Queens of tiny nations carved out of our own successes.
Against the thrones and powers of this world what hope does the small and suffering church of Christ cling to?
They cling to the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth.
There is no higher throne than that of Christ. His kingdom will not endure for a while, but for an eternity. So don’t forget our heavenly nation. As we begin a New Year, as we face the challenges and struggles of living for Christ in a difficult world, let’s seek His kingdom. As we labour for our nations, as we try even to build our own mini kingdoms, let’s remember that we do so as citizens of Heaven. Let’s live for our True King, the Ruler of the Kings of the Earth, Jesus Christ.