Tonight we will be reading through Revelation 12-13. It is here that we encounter the unholy Trinity of the Red Dragon, the Beast of the Sea, and the Beast of the Earth who bears the number 666. Revelation 12 is the cosmic battle against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places and Revelation 13 is the political battle against the world rulers of this present darkness.
The Beast of the Sea: (vv.1-4)
After the Woman is saved, the Red Dragon makes war on her other offspring. The Dragon stands on the sand of the seashore and summons the great Beast of the Sea. As we looked at in our study of Genesis 1, in ancient new eastern mythology, the primordial chaos out of which creation arises is represented by a great sea monster/serpent. This idea is carried over into parts of the Scripture where God is seen as defeating the sea monster at creation. (Isa. 51:9-10, Job 26:12-13). In Isaiah’s apocalyptic vision, God slays the Beast of the Sea (the Leviathan) to bring about Israel’s redemption. Isa. 27:1. Traditionally and mythologically, the Beast of the Sea is the original nemesis of God.
Here, this Beast of the Sea specifically represents the political power arrayed against God’s people. John describes this Beast of the Sea as being like a leopard, with the feet of a bear, and the mouth of a lion. It has ten horns adorned with diadems and seven heads with blasphemous names written upon them. The Beast is the amalgamation of the four beasts of the sea of Daniel 7 representing the Babylonian, Persian, Macedonian, and Seleucid Empires. These were the four great successive pagan empires that ruled Jerusalem.
The seven heads are seven (nearly successive) Roman emperors (ancient Rome was also built on seven hills and seven is the number of completeness). John tells us that one head was mortally wounded but recovered. This is probably a reference to the legend that the Emperor Nero did not really die, but instead fled to the east and would return to Rome to conquer it. The blaspheming names on the heads are the titles that the Roman emperors gave themselves that rightly belonged to God and Lamb such as “Saviour of the World” or “Lord and God.”
The ten horns are inferior political leaders who are also given authority to persecute the church. Rev. 17:12. The persecution of John’s congregations is not limited to Roman authorities and Roman soldiers, but extends to more local authorities and ordinary people as well.
The Beast’s Persecution: (vv.5-10)
The beast “was given” and “was allowed” to utter blasphemes, exercise authority, and to make war on the saints. Even amid persecution, John’s vision is that God is sovereign. Like Jesus before Pilate (John 19:11), evil only has those powers which God sovereignly allows it to have. John reminds his audience and us that the Beast (the political powers of this world) has no authority of its own. Since God is sovereign, then all things are working towards the Good (Rom. 8:28), even the persecution of the church. Although John does not give us a specific answer as to why the persecution must occur, the general tenor of Revelation is that evil must be allowed to burn itself out and to be judged. Divine constraint over the powers of this world would impede the coming of the new heaven and the new earth in the denouement of John’s vision.
The Beast of the Earth: (vv.11-18)
John sees the final member of the unholy Trinity arise out of the Earth. Just as the Red Dragon gave the Beast of the Sea all of its power and authority, so now does the Beast of the Sea give all of its authority to the Beast of the Earth. And, just as the Beast of the Sea imitated Christ in appearing to die and come back from death, so this Beast of the Earth has the horns of the Lamb (although he speaks like the Dragon). This Beast even can bring down fire from heaven as did Moses (Ex. 9:23) and Elijah (1 Kings 18:38, 2 Kings 1:10). The Beast of the Earth deceives the people into worshiping the Beast of the Sea. If the Beast of the Sea is the Roman emperor then the Beast of the Earth is the pagan priesthood serving in the Temple of Cult of the Emperor or simply ordinary Roman subjects who come to worship the power, the glory, the victory, and the majesty of the Empire.
The Mark of the Beast:
This chapter ends with maybe one of the most misused passages in Revelation. In John’s vision, all people (except those whose names are written in the Book of Life) are marked on their forehead or right hand with the Mark or Name of the Beast. This name has the numerical value of 666. (When I was growing up, supermarket bar codes were considered to be the mark.)
John (probably) is not referring to a physical mark, but a spiritual mark. For example, John also says that the name of “Jerusalem” will be written on the members of the church in Philadelphia (Rev.3:12) and that, in the very next sentence in Rev. 14:1, the 144,000 martyrs have the name of the Lamb and the Father written on their foreheads. We see this type of spiritual marking in the Baptismal Rite where the priest makes the sign of the cross on the baptized person’s forehead saying “N, you are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own for ever.” (1979 BCP 308).
Although this marking may be spiritual, it is very real. The mark concerns what someone does (the right hand) and what someone thinks (the forehead) and whether these actions and thoughts conform to the Beast or conform to God. What the Beast of the Earth desires is the assimilation to society and to the violent power of the State. With this conformity, the people of God lose their saltiness and hide their light. Matt. 5:13-16. This is John’s primary concern in the letters to the seven churches in Revelation 2-3.
As to the number itself, 666 refers to a specific individual. John tells us that the number is not what is written, but rather the number is a code that John is using whereby numbers can be assigned to different letters in a name and added up. There are different answers, but the prevailing view is that the number refers specifically to either Nero or Domitian.
The Beasts of Revelation 13 clearly arise out of a historical context rooted in the Roman Empire and the worship of the Emperor. John is writing about both active persecutions of the church and the relentless assault on the church to assimilate itself to Roman culture (particularly in Revelation 2-3) to worship the Emperor. For us today in the United States, actual persecution does not exist, but the Beasts’ deceptions to give religious sanction to political and military power is strong. In the Church today, we too often confuse our political allegiances to our allegiance to the Lamb and to the One on the Throne. Our worship of Christ becomes subordinated to our worship of our country, our political party, or a political candidate or issue. The beasts of the earth mislead and deceive us into worshipping the political powers of the world (the beast of the sea) and ultimately the one from whom these beasts received their authority (the Dragon). We easily see this in churches in Nazi Germany or in Putin’s Russia or in the Ku Klux Klan which considers itself a Christian organization.
Of course, the subordination of our religion to the State or the exchange of worshiping God for worshipping the State or something more sinister is always easier to see in others than in ourselves. The challenge is to have and to cultivate the self-awareness as to whom we are following. Part of our discussion tonight will be about how do we develop this self-awareness – most of Putin’s supporters see themselves as good Orthodox Christians standing up for Christian values. How do we move beyond equating our culture or politics with that of the Lamb?
Discussion is at 6. The menu is seafood pasta salad. Discussion about 7:15. Hope to see you here!
But we are citizens of heaven, exiles on earth waiting eagerly for a Liberator, our Lord Jesus the Christ, to come.Philippians 3:20