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Credo
15 August 2022

“Come out of her, my people” (Revelation 18:4)

Revelation 18 opens with an angel speaking authoritatively. A declaration is made concerning the destruction of Babylon (a cipher for Rome), as due punishment for her sins.

But in verse 4, the angel falls silent. It is now God who calls out: “Come out of her, my people”.  Apart from the epistolary segments (1:1-3:22), this is one of only two other places in Revelation where an imperative is directed at God’s people.[1]

God commands his people to flee Babylon for two reasons: (a) not to share in her sins, and (b) not to suffer her plagues.  Babylon’s offenses include: (1) inebriating the nations with immoral passion (18:3a, c.f. 14:8, 17:2b), (2) fornicating with the kings of the earth (18:3b, cf. 17:2a, 18:9a), (3) deriving mercantile wealth through sensual luxuries (18:3c, cf. 18:7, 18:9b), and (4) murdering the saints (18:24, cf. 17:6).

The original recipients of this revelation-prophecy-letter (see 1:1, 1:3, 1:4 respectively) were to beware, lest they get caught up in Babylon’s sins. And this remains a warning for present-day readers of the text.

This article elaborates on the wider system of economic inequality and excess in the Roman Empire, which threatened to divert the Church’s worship away from the Lamb and to dishonour God’s image found in humanity.

 

Economic disparities and devaluation of human life

The list of cargoes in Revelation 18:12-13 give a window into the economic disparities of the era. Economic historians estimate that in the mid-2nd century, slightly after the time Revelation was written, between 10% to 22% of the Roman Empire’s population struggled to eke out a living, with consumption substantially below subsistence levels.  The majority (55% to 60%) were at around subsistence levels. On average, while there was no widespread destitution (otherwise the population would have been on the decline), most people simply ‘got by’ and life was by no means luxurious. There was no true modern middle class, but economically ‘middling’ non-elite groups accounted for 10% of the total population and 15% to 25% of total income.  The elite top 1.5% of households, however, controlled around 15% to 25% of total income.[2]  An example: citron wood (18:12c) from North Africa was used to fashion dining tables costing up to 1.2 million sesterces, the price of a large landholding. In comparison, the daily labour wage was four sesterces (one denarius), meaning that a mere wooden table cost a mind-blowing 820 years’ worth of ordinary labour.  In the 1st-century Roman Empire, a privileged few were extremely wealthy, while the vast majority languished at or near subsistence levels.

Roman elites showed little concern for those at the bottom of the spectrum, the very ones who took final place in Revelation’s cargo list, that is, slaves (18:13). Ancient slave-traders were often termed ‘merchants of bodies’. The Greek text of verse 13 in fact uses the term ‘bodies and human souls’ (somatohn kai psuchas anthropohn) to describe the same object – human slaves. But the exepegetical Greek kai implies that these bodies are not mere commodities; they are in fact human persons. To be fair, the Roman Empire practised a different form of slavery than antebellum USA.  Roman slaves were frequently freed from service (manumission), and some were well-educated and highly-skilled, serving as trusted teachers of elite children or given authority as managers of noble households.  Nevertheless, the fact remains that slaves’ lives remained entirely in the hands of their masters.  The mention of slaves in the list of mere cargoes is an indictment that Rome’s wealth is undergirded by disdain for human life.

 

The first hearers amidst the Roman economic system

The original recipients of John’s letter – Christians living in seven cities in Asia Minor – were well-acquainted with Rome’s economic power.  Ephesus was among the largest urban centers on the Mediterranean coast, boasting a thriving harbor, at which three key trade routes converged. Sardis had a thriving economy in fabrics and luxury clothing, its carpets being found even in far-flung palaces in Persia. Thyatira was home to at least ten different trade guilds. Laodicea, a prosperous commercial centre, was acclaimed for its glossy black wool and ophthalmological products.  Purple garments (18:12b) were a conspicuous display of affluence and social status, with the rare dyes extracted from tiny shellfish or from plant roots, in which the clothing and dyeing industries in Thyatira, Laodicea, and Hierapolis may have been involved. Overall, residents in the seven cities would have benefited materially from the economic activity led by Rome.

Yet, Revelation 18 revealed that despite its benefits, Asia Minor’s trade with Rome was a source of temptation. The original recipients were warned to exit, lest they be punished together with that whore of a city.

 

Going out – then and now

“Come out of her” did not refer to a physical departure from Rome, since the first recipients did not reside there in the first place. Hence the call is a symbolic one, to dissociate from the evil and luxurious indulgences associated with Rome.  DeSilva writes:

John wants to foster critical distance from the practices of idolatrous worship (including imperial cult) and from the imperial economic system […] He also seeks to fix in his hearers’ minds the violence, the unjust economic practices, and the masking of the full truth that maintain the imperial economy into which the merchants and tradespeople of the cities of Asia are invited.[3]

Importantly, distancing oneself is for the purpose of bearing witness, not mere separationism.  G.K. Beale affirms that “absolute physical removal would contradict the essence of the Christian calling to witness to the world”.[4]  N.T. Wright notes that God created structures of authority, but “the problem comes when those structures arrogate to themselves powers beyond those of being humble servants of God’s good purposes for his world and his image-bearing creatures,”  and so the reader must “discern the point where one passes into the other, and to exit physically or spiritually”.[5]  “Come out from her” is not a rejection of society, but of the church bearing an image of God’s intended life to society.

For both the seven cities and the modern city of Singapore, exit-as-witness involves rejecting the idol of acquisitiveness.  This means living simply, rejecting consumption for the sake of gaining social status or for keeping up an image.  This means affirming that economic growth is important – but only as a penultimate means and never an absolute end in itself.  This means exiting those social norms which imply that our possessions define us, that our consumption patterns make us part of the ‘in’-group, that these indulgences bring true meaning and satisfaction.  By choosing to live simply rather than luxuriously, we – like the book of Revelation – unveil an alternative reality to our contemporary world.

Finally, the issue is stewardship, not wealth.  John’s complaint is not against wealth per se, but with its misuse.  Revelation acknowledges that the Lamb receives wealth (5:12), and the wealth of the nations will be brought into the New Jerusalem (21:26, cf. Isa 60:3-11).  Rome’s problem was that prosperity was wrongfully squandered on wasteful indulgences instead of being used to succour the needy.

Wealth belongs to God and should be used for his purposes.  Stewardship means utilising wealth to bless fellow human beings, the bearers of imago Dei; not treating others as mere items on a list of goods or as a means to accumulate further riches.  Stewardship also means treating human beings with dignity – going beyond mere handouts, but enabling individuals and communities to identify and build on the skills, talents, assets, and resources which God has already given. The ABCD model – Asset-based Community Development – is an important example of this.

In conclusion, Revelation 18:4 entreats Christians across the ages to distance themselves from idols – not merely physical images, but anything that diverts worship away from the Lamb, including the present-day ‘gods’ of acquisitiveness and consumerism.  This is not a call for Christians to literally exit the globalised economic system, but to choose stewardship over greed, simplicity over indulgence.  Our economic choices must not denigrate, but value the image of God in fellow human beings.  Our lifestyle choices ought to bear witness against the cultural norms of status-driven materialism – a witness that over the approval of our peers, above the comforts of a refined society, we will give honour and worship only to the Lamb who is upon the throne (Rev 5:11-14).

References:

[1] The other imperative is at Rev 6:11 where the saints under the altar are told “rest a little longer”.  Instances of imperatives directed at others but not the church include John commanded to prophesy and to write (10:4-13), the angel calling on all humanity to give God the glory (14:7), and calling to birds to feast on human carrion (19:17).

[2] Peter Temin, “The economy of the early Roman Empire”, Journal of Economic Perspectives (2006): 133-151; Walter Scheidel and Steven J. Friesen, “The size of the economy and the distribution of income in the Roman Empire”, Journal of Roman Studies 99 (2009), 61-91.

[3] David A. DeSilva, Seeing Things John’s Way: The Rhetoric of the Book of Revelation, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 71.

[4] G.K. Beale, The Book of Revelation, New International Greek Testament Commentary Series, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 898.

[5] N.T. Wright, Revelation for Everyone, (London: SPCK, 2011), 160-161

The views in this article are entirely his own and do not represent the official position of the Trinity Annual Conference or the Methodist Church of Singapore.


Gilbert Lok has undergraduate training in Economics (1st-class honours, NUS), and postgraduate degrees in Divinity (TTC) and New Testament (Oxford). Gilbert currently serves as Assistant Pastor at Barker Road Methodist Church.