The man Constantine was a remarkable individual whose role was outlined for us within the Scriptures. He was one of those historical characters who left an indelible print on world history which will remain until the return of our Lord Jesus Christ.

To appreciate the circumstances of Constantine’s emperorship we must first consider the historical background of the times. The Roman Empire was a military dictatorship and so there were periods of time when men of wisdom and capacity ascended the throne, and equally, periods when individuals of much lesser capacity rose to prominence. It was the army that made the emperor, and the Praetorian Guard, an elite army unit, had been nominated as the emperor’s personal body guard. In fact in many instances they used their unique position to remove and install emperors, at times being open to the highest bidder.

Biblical Time Setting

In Revelation 6:7–9, the period of the Fourth Seal covered about a fifty year period up to AD284. In that period of fifty years more than twenty emperors came and went. The empire suffered from declining military power, poor administration, hunger and the spread of disease. Approximately 50% of the empire’s inhabitants succumbed to disease and famine.

The man Diocletian ascended the throne in AD284 and he was just what the empire needed. He gave it strength and vigour, he revitalized agriculture and military administration, and he offered leadership. In this way he unified an empire that had been on the verge of disintegration. He was also a devout pagan. In the Fifth Seal period described in Revelation 6:9–11, the horrific persecution of Christians, including our brethren and sisters, is described for us.

Diocletian was a unique character among the emperors. He retired from office! In fact he left the empire in a robust condition, and although problems arose after his retirement, he could not be convinced to once again take up the emperorship. It is written of Diocletian and his emperorship, “The breaking up of the empire seemed imminent unless someone of exceptional ability could arrest the decay. Such an emperor was Diocletian, who restored order, kept the frontiers intact, and devised a reorganization of the empire which, varied and modified by later emperors, postponed its fall for two centuries” (The Story of Greece and Rome p238).

Constantine Ascends the Throne

With Diocletian’s retirement in AD305 we now had a period of two years in which the empire experienced instability as a number of individuals jockeyed for power. One such man was Constantius, a Roman general in Western Europe, who for a short period became emperor of the western half the empire. His son Constantine had served as an officer in the court of Diocletian, and was raised by his father to excel in both military and administrative matters.

On the death of his father, Constantine was not made emperor by the powers in Rome. However, his father’s army, over which he was now general, made him their emperor in AD307. He ascended the throne in the city of York in England and was now recognized as being responsible for Britain and Gaul, or the western quarter of the Roman Empire. He was 32 years of age, well trained in military tactics, a wise administrator, and had a burning ambition to once again unite the empire as he had seen done by Diocletian. One writer describes Constantine as “ruthless and cunning, a successful soldier and resourceful politician”.

So ascended to the throne “a man child” (Rev 12:5), whose work it was to relieve the persecution of the saints and at the same time to establish a system of Christianity, that would of itself in time, become a persecutor of all those who held to the truth of the Scriptures!

“A Great Earthquake”

The ascension of Constantine is described for us in Revelation 6:12 as a “great earthquake”.

 

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                                                                Constantine the Great
Statue at York where his troops proclaimed him Emperor

It was to prove to be a massive upheaval in the Roman Empire. It is interesting that the three “great earthquakes” of the Apocalypse are all associated with the Roman religious system.

  • Revelation 6:12: Constantine establishes the Roman Church
  • Revelation 11:13: The French revolution begins the process of reducing the Church’s temporal power.
  • Revelation 16:18: The Battle of Armageddon which will ultimately destroy the Roman system (see v19).

Early Years as Emperor

At the time Constantine ascended the throne there were very few Christians living in Western Europe. Paganism was the religion of the state and the majority adhered to it. However, in Asia Minor, the eastern section of the empire, Christianity was in the ascendancy. By the time Constantine was the sole emperor in AD324, he was ready to assume Christianity as the religion of the empire, in fulfilment of the words of Daniel chapter 11, “neither shall he regard the God of his fathers” (Dan 11:37). For political power and influence he was prepared to ignore his pagan heritage.

Following Constantine’s ascension there was a period of military and political intrigue as four men, all of whom had claims to the emperorship, competed for power. The Apocalypse describes this period as being “war in heaven” (Rev 12:7), as the forces of each aspirant contested for ultimate power and authority. Constantine met one of his rivals, Maxentius, in battle at a place called Milvian Bridge in AD312. The night before the battle he claimed to have seen a vision which included the sign of the cross. In the morning he had all his soldiers paint the sign of the cross on their shields and from that time forth he fought under the sign of Christianity. This in no wise meant he was now Christian, as we will comment on later. Constantine was victorious in the battle and one of his competitors had been eliminated. He was now the sole emperor of the western half of the empire. His headquarters were now in Rome and he acted decisively to strengthen his position. He restructured the army, which included the disbandment of the notorious Praetorian Guard. He separated civil and military administration to ensure the power of the army to remove emperors was reduced. The civil authority to a great degree was ultimately inherited by the Church once it became the state religion.

In AD313 he passed the Edict of Toleration which was designed to allow people the choice of worship within the empire. In a letter to the Governor of Bithynia he said, “We resolved to make such decrees as should secure respect and reverence for the Deity; namely, to grant both to Christians and to all free choice of following whatever form of worship they pleased, to the intent that all divine and heavenly powers that be, might be favourable to us and all those living under our authority.”

You will note from this letter that he was more interested in ensuring that he and the empire receive blessing from any god there might be, rather than having a personal conviction of the true God, the Father of Jesus Christ.

Constantine as Sole Emperor

The battle referred to in Revelation 12:7–9 was fought in AD324 when the Christian forces of Constantine met on the field of battle the pagan forces of Licinius. This is described as a battle between the Dragon and Michael, each with his angels in attendance. It was a “war in heaven”. This battle was to resolve the political and military authority of the empire; it was about who was going to rule.

Licinius is described as “the dragon” as he fought in the name of paganism, whilst Constantine fought in the name of Christianity and so is designated “Michael” by the Spirit. With the defeat of Licinius , Constantine now found himself as sole emperor and so began the process of unification of the empire. He ruled over the whole empire from AD324–337, a period of fourteen years.

Constantine’s Organisation

The impetus was now with Constantine to achieve his aim, a united, powerful and everlasting empire. One of his first acts was to build a new city in the east which was named after him, Constantinople. He transferred the seat of military and civil administration to Constantinople in AD327. This paved the way for the Church to assume greater pre-eminence in Rome and the western part of the empire.

The restructure of civil authority is described for us in the following terms: “During his reign, Constantine had organized the Church along the lines of his civil administration, with territories divided into areas called dioceses, each one supervised by a bishop. The bishop resided in a town, and the building—called a cathedral—where his “see”, or official seat, was located, was a place not only for worship but of bureaucratic power” (The Story of Christianity p72).

So Constantine used the Church to assist in unifying the empire. The Church in turn was able to modify its teachings and systems to accommodate Constantine, so that it in turn could achieve its own objective of holding universal authority.

Constantine and Religion

Constantine was not a religious man. In fact he is known to have murdered his wife whilst she was taking a bath. He personally executed his firstborn son, Crispus, because he was jealous of his accomplishments (somewhat like the feelings of Saul toward David). He was ‘baptised’ prior to his death in AD337, a common practice in those days to ensure that all sins, right up to the last ones committed, would be washed away. It would be incorrect to think of Constantine as having been a practising Christian.

The following extract outlines clearly the position: “It was during the reign of Constantine the Great that the cult of Deus Sol Invictus reached extraordinary heights, so that his reign was even spoken of as a Sun Emperorship. For those who believe that he was a Christian, it is of some concern that the emperor continued to issue his coins with the symbol of the Sun, till at least 323” (The Cult of Sol Invictus p167).

Constantine simply saw religion as a means to an end. In the struggle to achieve his ambitions he was prepared to use any means available for his own purposes. One commentator put it succinctly when he said of Constantine:

“He made a decision about religion, not a religious decision”, and “his was not conversion, but an exchange of divine patronage”.

Constantine and the Church

During his reign Constantine was concerned with the unity of everyone within the empire. For that reason he was adamant that there must be unity within the Church. He said, “division within the Church is worse than war”. He knew in order to bring about lasting unity, it was essential to control both heart and mind.

For this reason he called all the bishops together to Nicea for a conference in AD325. This was to establish the teaching about the nature of Christ. There were some bishops who taught that Christ was of human origin and others were teaching he was Divine. This difference caused a great deal of friction and even violence within the Church, and Constantine found this situation intolerable. It was from this position that the teaching of the Trinity began to develop. Recommended reading on that subject is the book When Jesus Became God by Richard E Rubenstein. It was clear that Constantine had no doctrinal interest in the outcome of the conference, but he demanded of the bishops that the issue be resolved. He remained with the bishops at the conference for over a month until they had excommunicated the Arian sect (those who taught the humanity of Christ), and he was satisfied that unity prevailed. In the book Christianity—From Hunted Sect to State Religion, the author makes this observation about Constantine’s demand for Church unity: ”Constantine’s ecumenism taught that the Church must not only be united with the emperor; it was also imperative that Christians be united with one another. Constantine was influenced by a political motive.”

Constantine’s Death and Legacy

In April AD327 Constantine fell ill. For a time he seemed to recover but by May he knew he was going to die. He was visited by generals, family and bishops. It was then that he was ‘baptised’. On May 22 Constantine the Great died, leaving behind an invigorated, unified empire with Christianity as the state religion. This religion had become an integral part of Rome, and remains so to this day—a witness to the thoroughness of his work.

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                                                                 Constantine’s Arch in Rome

It was Constantine who commenced the work of ensuring the continuance of Rome long after its military empire had collapsed. His work in turn was continued by others down through the centuries of time, but history records clearly that it was his initial efforts that made it possible. Consider the closing words of the history book, The Story of Greece and Rome: “By the time of the dissolution of the empire the church was so firmly established and so well organized that it occupied a commanding position in the new nations that began to spring up. Furthermore, in the times of confusion that followed the dissolution of the empire, the church did more than any other agency to preserve Roman culture. Under the primacy of the Bishops of Rome it was rapidly acquiring the strength that comes from a great unified and centralized administration. Thus the church as an institution was able to survive the empire, whose place indeed it took for centuries to come as the great unifying influence in Western Europe.”