Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Beasts and the Lamb

(A sermon based on Revelation 13 & 14 for Sunday, August 23, 2009)

When last we visited Revelation, we saw Satan pictured in chapter 12 as a dragon who had been cast down to the earth because he was defeated by the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. We were told that the dragon was going to wreak havoc on the earth during the little time that he had left. Chapter 13 tells us about how Satan wreaks that havoc on the earth, and especially upon the saints. In his symbolic world, John sees two beasts that carry out the bidding of Satan. When we think about what John’s words would have meant specifically to the seven churches to which he was writing and what they mean in an ongoing way, we will arrive at a helpful interpretation of this chapter.

The first beast arises out of the sea. The churches of Asia Minor would have understood this beast to be the Roman Empire. They were accustomed to seeing its representatives arriving by ship. The heads of the beast would represent the emperors of Rome. The dragon gave this beast his power; that is, the beast was the embodiment of satanic power. The beast was blasphemous, John says. The blasphemy of the empire was in claiming too much power for itself; the blasphemy of the emperors was in accepting praise as if they were divine. Those who were Christians, whose names were written in the Lamb’s book of life, were the only ones who would not give in to this idolatry. Still, the empire had power and it was willing to use it. Therefore, Christians ran the risk of being killed for their faith and they would have to endure (v. 10).

What does it mean that “one of its heads seemed to have received a death-blow, but its mortal wound had been healed” (v. 3)? Most scholars relate this picture to a rumor current in the first century. The rumor had it that the emperor Nero, who committed suicide in 63 AD, had come back to life and was waiting to reclaim his empire. That may be the origin of John’s symbol, but I think it more likely that John meant one of two other things. The first possibility is that John means to say that the empire, despite its sometimes seemingly eminent demise, kept bouncing back. Related to that would be that upon the death of an emperor another emperor inevitably took his place. The second possibility is that John is saying that the empire had been struck a fatal blow by the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ, but that it still continued to function and to exercise Satan’s power. That could be the meaning of the head of the beast having been “healed” of its mortal wound.

The second beast rose out of the earth. It appeared harmless and even positive (“it had two horns like a lamb”) but it was in fact evil and satanic (“it spoke like a dragon”). Verse 12 is the key to understanding the meaning of the second beast: “It exercises all the authority of the first beast on its behalf, and it makes the earth and its inhabitants worship the first beast.” Local councils existed in Asia Minor that promoted and enforced emperor worship. The councils could apparently even pull off some pretty amazing religious-looking tricks to promote the worship of the emperor.

The first beast is said to have a “mark.” We are told that no one could buy or sell without having that mark, that the mark is the number or name of the beast, and that the number of the beast is 666. What does all this mean? The number is easily understood. Three sevens would be perfection. In some early Christian tradition, the number of Christ is given as 888, thus even beyond perfection. 666 is less than perfect three times, and thus very bad. Interestingly, when you spell “Nero Caesar” in Hebrew, the numeric value of the name is 666. That could be convenient coincidence. In short, 666 for John and his original readers would have stood for the empire and/or emperor that claimed divinity but fell short of even being decent humanity. We should not envision a literal mark. The meaning is that unless one worshiped and served the emperor he would suffer economic deprivation. Now, it is interesting that coins bore the image of the emperor and also his various titles, including those that claimed divinity. Perhaps that is in the background here.

Also in the background might be the image of the phylactery, those small boxes containing Scripture that Jews would attach to their foreheads or to their wrists, signifying that they served God with all their minds and with all their actions. The meaning then would be that to bear the “mark of the beast” meant to serve him with the kind of dedication that should be reserved for God alone.

Today, of course, we don’t have to worry about the Roman Empire. But we do still have to be aware of the power of the devil and of the ways that he uses the powers of the earth to do his bidding. We don’t have to fear the power of the devil, because our Lord has defeated him. But we do have to take seriously his activity during these, his last days.

There are still worldly powers that serve him. When powers or structures or institutions or individuals or economics demand more allegiance of people than is rightly theirs, then we have the beasts in our midst. When people put other allegiances before their loyalty to God, when they sell their souls to gain an economic advantage, then we have the beasts in our midst. Rome’s not a problem, but the beasts surely are, because Satan surely is.

Still, those who have trusted in Christ are safe and secure. Moreover, they can trust in the just judgments of God. Those are the main teachings of chapter 14.

At the beginning of chapter 14, John sees the Lamb standing on Mt. Zion, accompanied by the 144,000 who bear both the Lamb’s name and the Father’s name on their foreheads. Bearing the names means the same thing as their having been sealed in chapter 7 meant. They are identified with the Lord and he makes them safe. These 144,000 represent all those Christians who persevere and who claim Christ’s victory.

The symbolism of their being “virgins” (v. 4) means that they have been faithful to the Lord and have not committed adultery by worshipping the emperor or any other false gods. The Lamb who is Jesus Christ is always with his faithful ones, and one day he will return to take all his faithful ones home to be with him, and he will execute judgment on those who have served the world and its beasts rather than God.

For the most part, the remainder of chapter 14 proclaims and pictures the great future judgment of God upon the ungodly and the wicked. John portrays the judgment in very graphic terms, all of which are meant to underscore the seriousness of the matter. When the Lamb comes, when Jesus Christ returns, then those who have trusted in Christ and have followed him will know for all eternity the blessings that already begin when a believer dies in her faith. But those who have rejected the Lord for all their lives will spend all eternity apart from God, punished for all time as the consequence for the choice they consistently made.

Embedded in these verses of judgment are some very beautiful words: “And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labors, for their deeds follow them’” (14:13). We can endure anything! We can live through anything! We can suffer anything! We can persevere through anything! Why? Because we know that the Lamb is stronger than any beast. We know that in the end, God will win his victory and will make everything as it ought to be. We know that we can die in the Lord and that we can rest forever from earthly toil.

We know in whom we have we believed: the crucified, resurrected, and returning Lamb of God.

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