What Has Been May Be Again

In the mid-third century, the Roman Emperor Decius embarked on a campaign to secure the fragmenting loyalty of his subjects. Rome’s eastward expansion saw new and very different ideas take root in the Empire. New religions threatened the old. And Rome, ever wary of anything new, became concerned. The mystery surrounding the cults of Mithras, Isis, and Sol Invictus made the Roman hierarchy nervous. These secretive sects only disclosed their secrets to initiates. But Romans were highly suspicious of anything not able to be conducted in the light of day. Who knows what sedition might be brewing behind closed doors?

Rome also attributed their success at empire-building to the supremacy of their pantheon of gods and goddesses. Who knew what danger lurked in their jealousy at these upstart Eastern deities? The leaders of Rome owed it to their subjects to halt the spread of these Eastern mysteries lest plague or pestilence ensue as a measure of divine wrath. 

Lumped in with the Eastern mystery sects was a new and emerging faith born in Israel—Christianity. The Romans were at first reluctant to oppose it because they assumed it was merely a reform movement in the begrudgingly tolerated religion of Judaism. The determined monotheism of Judaism was a challenge to the polytheism of Roman paganism that fired many debates. But Judaism had secured a hesitant sanction by Rome due to its ancient age and dogged endurance. Rome adored tradition while eschewing novelty. They assumed, “If true, not new. If new, not true.” As long as Roman officials regarded the followers of Jesus as just one of the many sects of Judaism, the Church flew under Judaism’s reluctant acceptance. When the leaders of Judaism ostracized Jesus’ followers, began to persecute them, and a growing number of non-Jews embraced the movement, Rome started to pay closer attention. The Church’s explosive growth, especially in portions of society with a history of civil unrest for Rome (the poor and slaves) caused many officials to lump Christianity in with the suspicious Eastern mystery cults.

All this moved Emperor Decius at the end of AD 249 to pass an edict of persecution meant to halt the growing popularity of these sects. But carrying out the edict presented a challenge – How to sort out who to persecute since the groups Decius wanted to go after were secretive? He came up with a plan: A loyalty test. Officials were instructed to require subjects to publicly show their fidelity to Rome and her gods by offering a special sacrifice: Pouring out a few drops of wine as a libation to the gods, then dropping a pinch of incense on some hot coals while reciting the oath, “Caesar is Lord.” 

By this time in Roman history, the Emperor was regarded as the living embodiment of the animus of Rome, its animating spirit, and as such a god. Once the obligatory libation was made, the oath recited in the presence of witnesses, a small document was signed attesting to the subject’s loyalty. This document, called a libellus, appears to have been written by the person on a small piece of parchment in preparation for the oath, with their name and details spelled out ahead of time according to a formula dictated by the officials. Those officials then endorsed it once the sacrifice and oath were conducted. The libellus became a “proof of loyalty” that allowed them to conduct business and make transactions.

Jews were exempt from this routine due to their sanctioned worship of a single deity. Since Christians were now officially disassociated from Judaism, the Empire expected them to comply with the worship of Caesar. They couldn’t. Caesar was not their Lord. Jesus was. In truth, having Jesus as Lord made them excellent subjects – trustworthy, diligent, and loyal. But unable to obtain a libellus, they became victims of a system demanding obedience. Christians could not do business or buy in the marketplace. In some places, zealous officials rounded up those lacking a libellus. They became fodder for games in the arena.

The more I have studied history and tracked today’s trends, the more convinced I am that the Church of the Last Days will face dangers similar to those the first Christians faced. 

The Book of Revelation speaks of a time when people will be forced to bear a mark in their bodies, showing allegiance to the end times government system. Without that mark, they will be unable to buy or sell. If that seems like something that would require a lot of change for, remember back to not long ago when attending certain functions and entering buildings required proof of COVID vaccination. International travel could only be done with a COVID libellus. People lost jobs and students were banned from school because they would not get a shot.

No – the COVID vaccination was no the dreaded “mark of the beast” of Revelation 13. It was the preparation of the system and the populace to enact drastic measures in the face of a perceived threat. Consider how acrimonious the debates between pro- and anti-vaxxers was. The world is being prepared for the day when a modern Emperor Decius, “for the sake of the realm,” requires a new libellus to show allegiance to his system.

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