The Beginnings of the Empire What follows in this and the next three essays is a short biography of most of the Roman emperors up through the time of the emperor Constantine the Great. The hope is that the information may be useful to the student of the New Testament.
In the last article we noticed that the phrase “Son of God” had a different message to Roman ears than to our ears. In this final article, I would like for us to look at the implication and significance of teaching Jesus to be the Savior.
In secular Greek, the word “savior” was “a laudatory name that men bestow in recognition of noble actions.” Performing deeds that safeguarded the people or preserved what was precious could earn a person the title of savior. The title of savior was common used for the Roman emperor, especially denoting his ability to maintain or restore peace in the empire.
Notice how the word “savior” was used in connection with Julius Caesar: “In addition to these remarkable privileges they named him father of his country, stamped this title on the coinage, voted to celebrate his birthday by public sacrifice, ordered that he should have a statue in the cities and in all the temples of Rome, and they set up two also on the rostra, one representing him as the savior of the citizens and the other as the deliverer of the city from siege, and wearing the crowns customary for such achievements” (Dio 44.4.5).
Notice the word was also used in connection to Augustus: “Whereas the Providence which has guided our whole existence and which has shown such care and liberality, has brought our life to the peak of perfection in giving to us Augustus Caesar, whom it filled with virtue for the welfare of mankind, and who, being sent to us and to our descendants as a savior, has put an end to war and has set all things in order” (Priene calendar inscription; 9 B.C.). The emperor was repeatedly called “the savior of the world” and “the savior of the inhabited earth.”
Of course, the apostolic message would have been in conflict with imperial Rome. The apostles announced Jesus to the Savior and Son of God. The Samaritans realized that Jesus was the true Savior in John 4. “And they told the woman, “We no longer believe because of what you said, for we have heard for ourselves and know that this really is the Savior of the world” (John 4:42). Notice how John testifies of this same message in his epistle: “And we have seen and we testify that the Father has sent the Son as Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of GodÃ¢â‚¬”God remains in him and he in God” (1 John 4:14-15).
The conflict concerning who is Savior and Son of God is described thoroughly by theologian N.T. Wright:
“If Jesus is Messiah, he is of course also Lord, Kyrios. The proper contexts for this term, too, are its Jewish roots on the one hand and its pagan challenge on the other. Taking them the other way round for the moment: the main challenge of the term, I suggest, was not to the world of private cults or mystery-religions, where one might be initiated into membership of a group giving allegiance to some religious “lord”. The main challenge was to the lordship of Caesar, which, though certainly “political” was also profoundly “religious”. Caesar demanded worship as well as “secular” obedience; not just taxes, but sacrifices. He was well on the way to becoming the supreme divinity in the Greco-Roman world, maintaining his vast empire not simply by force, though there was of course plenty of that, but by the development of a flourishing religion that seemed to be trumping most others either by absorption or by greater attraction. Caesar, by being a servant of the state, had provided justice and peace to the whole world. He was therefore to be hailed as Lord, and trusted as Savior. This is the world in which Paul announced that Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, was Savior and Lord” (Center of Theological Inquiry).
We have always described Jesus as only a Savior from our sins. While this is true that Jesus has brought us salvation from sins, eternal punishment, and separation from God, we must accept that there was more implied when the apostles spoke of Jesus as the Savior. The apostles were also declaring Jesus to be the true Savior because his deeds truly safeguarded the people.
N.T. Wright adds:
“The Caesar-cult was fast-growing, highly visible, and powerful precisely in its interweaving of political and religious allegiance. As various writers have recently urged, you dont need such a strong military presence to police an empire if the citizens are worshipping the emperor. Conversely, where Rome had brought peace to the world, giving salvation from chaos, creating a new sense of unity out of previously warring pluralities, there was a certain inevitability about Rome itself, and the emperor as its ruler, being seen as divine. Rome had done Ã¢â‚¬” Augustus had done Ã¢â‚¬” the sort of thing that only gods can do. Rome had power: the power to sweep aside all opposition; the power, in consequence, to create an extraordinary new world order. Rome claimed to have brought justice to the world; indeed, the goddess Iustitia was an Augustan innovation, closely associated with the principate. The accession of the emperor, and also his birthday, could therefore be hailed as euaggelion, good news (we should remember of course that most of the empire, and certainly the parts of it where Paul worked, were Greek-speaking). The emperor was the kyrios, the lord of the world, the one who claimed the allegiance and loyalty of subjects throughout his wide empire. When he came in person to pay a state visit to a colony or province, the word for his royal presence was parousia (Center of Theological Inquiry).
In these statements I want us to see what the Christians of the Roman empire were dealing with. Their statements would have been contrary to imperial Rome. Their message would have been confusing at first for their gospel was not of emperor Tiberius, Caligula, or Nero, but of a Jewish rabbi named Jesus. It was Jesus who was the true Savior, the true Son of God, and true peace-maker. The terminology of the Christians would have been familiar to those in the Roman world, except that Jesus is the subject and not the current emperor. With Roman ears listen to these words, “We preach to you the gospel, that Jesus is the Son of God and the Lord of all the earth, that he has brought peace and is the savior of all men, and that he now abides in heaven.” This summarizes the messages preached by apostles in the New Testament.
As we conclude this article, I would like for you to consider the last sentence made by N.T. Wright:
“When he [the emperor] came in person to pay a state visit to a colony or province, the word for his royal presence was parousia.”
Paul uses this very word in 1 Thessalonians 4:15 in reference to the future coming of Christ. Some denominations have turned the parousia into an incomprehensible concoction of the beginning of a tribulation, rapturing of the saints, and other worldwide chaos. But notice the simplicity of what Paul is trying to picture for us. To have the emperor arrive in your province was a great honor and was cause for celebration. Coins were minted to mark the event and the emperors presence marked a new era for the people. When Christ returns it will mark a new era as the righteous will be taken home to be with the Lord while the wicked are separated from God for eternal punishment. A simple image with a simple message to turn to the Lord before Christ comes.