We’re accustomed to thinking about the gospel in terms of the conflict and conquering experienced by Jesus. Whether His opponent was Satan, death, or sin, Christ met with and triumphed over them all. We’ve traveled down the paths of Scripture that develop these truths many times and have benefitted greatly from the journey. But there is another way that has not been as well traveled by most of us although it was well worn by the early Christians. That is the Roman road. It has to do with the conflict between Caesar and Christ, the kingdom of Rome and the kingdom of the Messiah. This confrontation was not only forecasted in the Old Testament (Daniel 2), but was fervently embraced (as well as misunderstood) by so many of the Jewish people in Jesus’ time.
There was no place like Rome—especially in regard to the way they intermingled the political and the religious. The two were blended together like something that comes from Starbucks. Regardless of the mix, the outcome was always the same—religion was the tool of the state and served as a means to a political end. As Gibbon noted in The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire, “The various modes of worship, which prevailed in the Roman world, were all considered by the people, as equally true; by the philosopher, as equally false; and by the magistrate, as equally useful.” Therefore, the emperor was also the Pontifex Maximus (chief priest), and religion was a state sponsored enterprise much like the lotteries states sponsor today where everyone who participates is offered a feeble version of hope, but ultimately it is the government’s interest that is served.
Gods were as numerous television channels so there was one for whatever you wanted or needed (Acts 17). The Romans had imported all of the Greek gods and goddesses with only the smallest of changes. However, the religion that was gaining the most traction in the empire in the time of Jesus was the imperial cult, known to us as emperor worship. N.T. Wright has written, “In the Mediterranean world where Paul exercised his vocation as the apostle to the Gentiles, the pagans, the fastest growing religion was the Imperial cult, the worship of Caesar . . . the Caesar cult was . . . highly visible, and powerful precisely in its interweaving of political and religious allegiance. Wright and others have reminded us that the popularity of the imperial cult shouldn’t come as a surprise. As Rome extended its rule into countries of the Mediterranean, Africa, and Europe, their presence wasn’t always viewed in the despising light that the Jews cast upon them. Many places experienced an end to civil wars, economic instability, and local anarchy. Rome brought peace, protection, and a certain measure of prosperity. The Pax Romana often resulted in a veneration of the empire. It wasn’t a big step from reverence of Rome to worship of the emperor.
When Julius Caesar led his troops across the Rubicon (and against Rome), he was hailed as a god by the inhabitants of the region. By then, he would have been used to such treatment since in previous campaigns he had been referred to as theos (god) and soter (savior). Indeed, such titles were often given to conquerors like Alexander the Great, the Ptolemies, and the Selucids. After his death in 44 BC, Caesar was given the title, divus Julius, (Julius the divine), and the worship began in earnest.
It continued with Caesar’s adopted son, Octavian, better known to us as Caesar Augustus, the first emperor of Rome. He liked to refer to himself as divus filius (son of God), and though no self-respecting emperor allowed himself to be worshipped in Italy, it was permitted, even encouraged in the provinces. In was one of the few ways the disparate areas could be united (and this was a problem for Rome). Augustus was also referred to as the kyrios (lord) of the world and one writer lobbied to have the calendar changed so that the year would begin on his birthday, he spoke of “the beginning for the world of the euangelion (gospel/good news) that have come to men through him.” As with his adoptive father, he was elevated to status of a god by the Senate after his death.