Ted Grimsrud

(08) Triumph of the Lamb—Revelation Thirteen and Fourteen

[From Ted Grimsrud, Triumph of the Lamb. Herald Press, 1987; reprint edition: Wipf and Stock, 1998.]

 

Spiritual Warfare, Part 2

 

Study Questions

(1)  What new images are introduced in chapter 13?  How are they related to each other?  What ties does this chapter have with the preceding one?

(2)  How would John’s first readers have understood the imagery in chapter 13?  Would such references as 13:3,12,15,16-18 have been meaningful to them?  Why?

(3)  Does 14:1-5 recall earlier material in the book?  How does this paragraph contrast with the material in chapter 13?

(4)  What is the meaning of 14:13 in its context?

(5)  What is the background and meaning of the imagery in 14:14-16?  How is this imagery further elaborated by the additional element found in 14:17-20?

(6)  Reflect on the larger movements of thought in the passage as a whole.  What are the main themes?  Is there movement toward a climax?  If so, what is it?  Does this passage have relevance for us today?  How?

 

13:1-4—The Awesome Beast

The dragon’s seven heads and ten horns (12:3) showed that power was of his very essence.  Of all the attributes of God, omnipotence is what Satan likely would spire most to have.  The beasts of Daniel 7 are actually explained as being four great kings or empires.  There also, power is of the essence.  We are shown a beast whose power is not that of wealth or of influence, but of a government (“diadems” and “a throne”) which combines all the powers of Daniel 7, and whose authority is worldwide (13:7).  We see in the beast the principle of power politics—in a word, the state.  For John this meant, of course, the Roman Empire.  But every succeeding generation of Christian people knows some equivalent of it.

The beast’s death and resurrection (13:3) may reflect the current widespread belief that the emperor Nero would return after death (if not in his own person, then in the person of one of his successors).  But this “death and resurrection” can also be seen in the realm of politics at any time in history (for example, communism, fascism, liberal democracy).  The whole earth follows the beast with wonder (13:3), each one having seen how the head he idolizes can yet rise again.  And all whose hope is not ultimately in the Lamb have no hope except in some human system, to which either expressly or by implication they give the blasphemous name of “god”.

When one empire receives a mortal wound (i.e., is defeated and disappears), that is not the end of the beast.  It simply continues on in a succeeding empire or kingdom or other political power structure.  The wound that killed one empire heals, and the beast continues in power in another empire.

The beast called from the abyss by the dragon (Satan) in 13:2 is not government in and of itself.  It is the abuse of it.

Only Christ’s life and death could qualify as the “mortal wound,” as chapter 12 has already told us.  The wounded head, in the light of 12:17, refers primarily to God’s words to the serpent that “her seed…shall bruise your head” (Gen. 3:15).  The “beast,” like the “great city” (11:8), personifies all opposition to God and his people from the beginning, and imitates the true Human’s death and resurrection.

The “obedience” and “testimony” of Jesus and his saints wound the beast’s “head” (the word for “wound” here is the same as for “plague” in 11:6).  Immortality and idolatry (as at Pergamum) and lack of witness (as at Laodicea) on the part of Christians restore its power to afflict them, and “the whole earth follows [it] with wonder” (contrast John 12:19).  Worship of that which is “not God” releases demonic powers.  Failure to maintain the “testimony of Jesus” is deadly not only to the church but to the world it is meant to save.

It was precisely Rome’s demand that people render to Caesar and to the state that which belongs to God alone which compelled the early church to resist Rome to the death.  John believed that in making this demand the state became demonic, and he vigorously represents this in 13:4 by drawing on ancient mythological pictures to caricature the role that the state and its rulers were playing.

It is said that “the dragon gave his power and his throne and great authority” (13:2) to the beast.  But the dragon had been defeated and thrown out of heaven.  Has he any authority to bestow on earth?  Only insofar as the world is content to recognize his authority.

 

13:5-10—The Beast’s Limited Power

The beast’s power endures “for 42 months” (13:5), just as long as the time of the Gentiles (11:2), as long as the prophesying of the two witnesses (11:3), as long as the woman’s abode in the wilderness (12:6,14).  In other words, the beast, in one form or another, will survive as long as the earthly duration of the church.

In 13:7 it is said that the beast “was allowed” to make war on the saints.  This indicates that Revelation does not express a radical dualism.  Yes, the beast rebels against God, but even that rebellion is part of God’s plan.  Creation may appear to be out of God’s control, but even the persecution of the faithful is within God’s providence.  The suffering of the saints is unavoidable and it is God’s will.  So the sayings, “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (13:10).

The beast is (for John) the Roman Empire, but its real threat to the church is not its sword, but its divine pretensions supported from within the church, which may lead Christians to take the wrong side when the final attack on the saints comes (13:7), and thus to expose them to a more deadly sword (2:12,16).  Likewise, the supreme disaster for the earth-dwellers is the Roman Empire which, as the inscriptions show, they take to be their supreme blessing.  For it involves them in a love of darkness and hatred of the light which must bring a recoil worse than the scorpion’s sting (9:5-6; 14:9-11).

“If any one has an ear let him hear” (13:9).  In each of the seven letters to the churches these words accompanied the promise to the conqueror.  By their solemn repitition here at the heart of the book John indicates that he is turning once again to give the church its marching orders.  If God allows the monster to wage war on his people and to conquer them, what must God’s people do?  They must allow themselves to be conquered as their Lord has done, so that like their Lord they may win a victory not of this world.

In 13:9-10 John combines part of Jeremiah’s oracle against Jerusalem (Jer. 15:2:  “If anyone is to be taken captive…”) with the saying of Jesus found in Matthew 26:52.  The whole is a warning against any attempt on the part of the church to resist its persecutors.  If Christians are condemned to exile, as john has been, they are not to lift their hands against the tyrant; to do so will be to deserve their punishment.  It is precisely this suffering without resistance that calls for patient endurance and faith (cf., 1:9; 14:12).

What calls for patient endurance is that the church must submit without resistance to the attack of the monster.  Only in this way can the monster be halted in its tracks.  Evil is self-propagating.

 

13:11-18—The Powerful Deception of the Beast from the Lord

Whereas the Lamb of God speaks the word of God (19:13 and chapters 2 and 3), the beast from the land (13:11) is the “lamb” of Satan, and it speaks the word of Satan.  It looks “like a lamb” but its speech betrays its origins.

Verses 11-13 make clear what the beast from the earth is.  Its looks are lamblike but its voice is dragonlike.  It stands before the first beast, waiting on his bidding and ready to act at his command and speak with his authority.  It is concerned with worship, the religious aspect of human life.  It works miracles, like bringing fire from heaven (1 Kings 18).  The coupling of Christlike appearance and Satanic message, the status of prophet, the concern with worship, and the appeal to the magical—all add up to one thing: false religion.

As a tool of Satan, “the deceiver of the whole world” (12:9)—the false prophet—deceives the inhabitants of the earth (13:13-15).  The deception takes the form of emperor worship.  They must “make an image for the beast”: a reference to the images, set up in temples of Rome and of the empire to which divine honors were rendered.

By the deceiving messages of the false prophet (cf. 16:13; 19:20), the “image of the beast” (i.e., of the first beast, the “system”) is presented as having a life of its own, apart from which people apparently cannot survive (13:15).  And, as the invisible seal of the Spirit confirms the divine ownership of God’s servants (7:3), so the mystical mark of the beast confirms those who sell themselves to the “system”.

The idea of the mark (13:16) is to provide a parallel with “the seal of the living God” (7:2), stamped on the foreheads of God’s servants (7:1-8; the conection is explicit in 14:1).  The seal of God marks out people as belonging to him, and so for preservation in his kingdom.  The mark of the beast similarly identifies people as his servants, and without this mark they cannot live.  The idea seems to reflect the practice in ancient society of marking people, by branding or taqtooing, as the property of others, whether of slave owners or of gods.

The mark of the beast is symbolic of allegiance to Rome.  Verse 17 implies that those without the mark were prevented from buying and selling.  Roman coins generally bore the image and name of the current emperor.  Refusal to use such coins severely inhibited one’s ability to buy and sell in Asia Minor.  Such a refusal by John and his first readers would not be surprising, since the emperor was often pictured as a god on coins.  The Zealots, who rebelled against Rome in A.D. 66-70, refused to carry, look at, or manufacture coins bearing any sort of image.  Their practice was based on a strict interpretation of the first commandment (cf. Exod. 20:4) and on the belief that the images and inscriptions of Roman coins were idolatrous.  The vision here implies a similar judgment.

The number 666 (13:18) does not stand for any particular person or institution but simply for the beast.  The church is symbolized by pictures (the elders, the woman, the two witnesses) and by a number (144,000).  The church age is symbolized by pictures (the woman preserved, the witnesses preaching, the nations occupying Jerusalem) and by a number (three and one-half years).  False religion is symbolized by a picture (the beast from the earth) and by a number (666).  The number 666 does not mean Nero or Caligula or Rome.  It simply means the beast, false religion.

The number 666 is eminently suitable to characterize the antichrist, since it implies a consistent falling short of the divine perfection suggested by 777.

Chapter 13 gives a parody of Christianity: a trinity (dragon, beast, false prophet), a death and resurrection, and a universal church with its sacrament of membership (13:16).

 

14:1-5—The Triumphant 144,000 with the Lamb on Mt. Zion

This passage is an important contrast to chapter 13.  The picture there is only partial, the dominance of the beast only superficial.  The real reality is here.  Chapters 13 and 14 are essentially simultaneous.  While the beast rages, those who are faithful stand strong in the midst of that.  Their true fate is victory, not defeat.  This is an important encouragement in the midst of tribulation and the dominance of the beast.  “Hold on,” John is saying.  “In reality the Lamb is dominant, hidden as that may be now.”

Some of the elements in the two chapters stand in contrast with each other.  For instance, the persecuted Christians are no longer at the mercy of their enemies but stand triumphant “on Mt. Zion,” the place of deliverance and divine glory (cf. Isa. 24:21-23; Mic. 4:6-7).  They are in the presence of the true Lamb instead of the imitation lamb (13:11).  They bear on their foreheads the “name” of the Lamb and his father’s name instead of the mark of the beast.  In reality, contrary to 13:3, not everyone did follow the beast.  Some continued to follow thge Lamb.

Verses 1-5 contain another reference to Psalm 2.  Psalm 2:6 says, “I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill.”  But what John sees is not a warrior king but the Lamb.  There is a good deal of battle imagery in the rest of Revelation, but ultimately no real battle is fought.  The real battle is over with the events of chapter 5.  What happens from now on is that the Lamb’s soldiers conquer by the blood of the Lamb and by following the Lamb wherever he goes.

The 144,000 (14;1-3) represent the whole people of faith. As the 144,000 in chapter 7 had the seal of God on their foreheads (7:3), here they have the name of the Lamb and the father’s name on their foreheads.

The redemption that the “new song” celebrates (14:3) is a mystery unfathomable to the people of this age (cf. 2 Cor 2:6-9).  It takes “faith” to be able to learn it.

In 14:3-4 the 144,000 are figuratively seen as male because they are “soldiers” of the Lamb.  The Deuteronomic regulations for holy war are in mind here.  They demanded that soldiers going to war preserve ceremonial purity (cf. Deut. 23:9-10).  Ceremonial purity is maintained here by abstaining from illicit relations with the harlot Babylon (cf. 14:8).

“Following the Lamb wherever he goes” is a way of speaking about discipleshiop.  These people are called the “first fruits for God and the Lamb” (14:4).  They are the vehicle by which God means to move humanity toward the New Jerusalem.  The church’s experience should also be a sign of what the New Jerusalem will be when it fully arrives.  The statement that “in their mouths no lie was found” (14:5) points condemningly to the lies of the antichrist.

 

14:6-7—The Gospel Proclaimed

The angel in 14:6-7 proclaims an “eternal gospel…to those who dwell on the earth” (i.e., those who rebel against God, those who trust in the beast and dragon and worship them).  These verses speak of the eternal gospel in broad, basic terms:  Repent, trust in, and worship God as your Creator.

The emphasis here is the redemptive intent of God.  The plagues are not just naked acts of judgment simply for the sake of punishment.  The go hand-in-hand with offering the gospel.

In 8:13 an eagle flies in “midair” crying, “Woe, woe.”  Here in verses 6 and 7 the angel flies in “midair” crying, “Fear God and give him glory.”  Perhaps the two pictures are of the same thing.  God’s judgments are God’s working to bring the end.  This is woe to those who refuse God’s offer of grace, but God’s intent is always redemptive.

 

14:8—Babylon’s Destruction Announced

Babylon must fall for the sake of her inhabitants.  As long as people are drunk on her wine they will be deceived.  If the source of
the wine is cut off, perhaps people will see the light.  God’s work is to destroy the destroyer of the earth for the sake of the earth dwellers.  So even if they lament Babylon’s fall, it is for their own good.  But some are so thoroughly seduced and “maddened” that they refuse to turn.  They hold on to Babylon and thus go down with her.

Babylon is seen by most commentators to be a reference to Rome, but I see it as broader.  Ancient Babylon was a rebellious civilization that tried to rule the world.  It oppressed God’s people, and was totally corrupted by the will-to-power.  The term Babylon is used of a spiritual force that tempts all nations and has reared its head throughout history to a greater or lesser extent whenever nations have been imperialistic, utilized some sort of civil religion, or persecuted God’s people.

Babylon falls.  Revelation emphasizes that very strongly.  But neither here nor anywhere else in the book is there any hint that she was attacked by outsiders.  She collapses from within.  She self-destructs.

 

14:9-11—The Importance of Loyalty to the Lamb

These verses emphasize one of the main points of this book as a whole.  What is at stake now is people’s loyalty.  John is seeing beneath the surface and emphasizing that those who trust in the beast will suffer the consequences and those who trust in the Lamb will in the end be blessed.

These verses form a counter proclamation to the image of the beast in 13:14.  There it was decreed that those who do not worship the image should be killed and those without the mark of the beast should be able neither to buy not sell (13:15,17).  Here the angel pronounces a much worse fate for those who do worship the beast and bear his mark.  They are to drink the wrath of God and endure eternal torment in fire and brimstone.  This fierce warning is directed both to those that live on the earth and to those in the Christian community who might be tempted to deny their faith in view of the coming persecution.

In the Bible, God is seen as people’s destiny—blessing for those who trust in god (Pss. 16:5; 23:5), ruin for those who do not (Ps. 75:8).  It is not that God “gives” them ruin as such, but turning away from truth and embracing falsehood is ruin, which God allows to take effect.  Babylon, the dragon, the beast, and the false prophet personify the effects of embracing falsehood—the self-destructive nature of sin and evil.

John is warning Christians to hold fast to the truth and not worship false gods.  He is revealing the true nature and destiny of beast worship so that people in the churches might see and act now, before it is too late.

This angel brings the personal challenge: those who identify with the Babylon beast will share its fate, and also “drink the wine of God’s wrath” (14:9-11).  Those who identify with Christ will similarly share his destiny and endure to everlasting life (14:12-13).

 

14:12-13—The Reward for Loyalty

The speech of the angel here is addressed to the churches, not so that they may gloat over the retribution in store for the ungodly, but in order that they may prevent it from happening.  The “patient endurance” that is called for is patient endurance in obeying God’s commands so that those who live on earth might also come to know God.

The saying in 14:13, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord,” is intended to strengthen the resolution of Christians facing the ultimate trial of strength with the antichrist.  Death has lost its terror for the “dead who die in the Lord.”  They are united to him who by his death and resurrection conquered death for them.  Their blessedness is rooted in the promise that their deeds will follow them.

 

14:14-16—The Harvest

Verse 14 relates to Christ’s second coming.  The reaping is for judgment in the widest sense.  It is for gathering the righteous for the kingdom and the unrighteous for punishment.

This passage is unique in the Bible in speaking of the Son of Man as seated in a white cloud instead of the traditional storm cloud of Yahweh (cf. Ps. 18:9ff.).  This may be intended to convey the thought of him coming in light and glory and blessing to a dark world.  How we receive the “light” depends on our “eyesight” (i.e., whether we see with “eyes of faith”).

The standard interpretation of these verses is that the grape harvest, which is destined for the winepress of God’s wrath and produces a monstrous tide of blood, is the reaping of the wicked.  The land will experience bloodbath from one end to the other.

However since it is outside the city (understood as the city of God), the city itself is kept pure.  Within it there is no place for such defilement.

G. B. Caird in his commentary offers a different view.  He looks back to the mention of “first fruits” in 14:4 with reference to the 144,000.  They “follow the Lamb wherever he goes; these have been redeemed from among people as first fruits for God and the Lamb.”  This offering is being made in the grape harvest.

In 14:18 John speaks of the vine, a term never used in any of the Old Testament pictures of vintage judgment on the heathen.  The vine was a traditional symbol for Israel.  In the Gospel of John, vine is used of the New Israel (John 15:1-8).  Therefore, here, too, the reference to the vine could lead us to infer that the gory vintage is used by John to portray the death of the faithful martyrs—the martyrs of the New Israel.

The punishment of Babylon comes when she is forced to drink the cup of God’s anger.  The winepress is not itself the punishment but the place there the wine of God’s wrath was being prepared.  Before long John is to see Babylon “drunk with the blood of the saints and the blood of the martyrs [or witnesses] of Jesus” (17:6), and he is to hear a voice from heaven that says “mix a double draught for her in the cup she mixed” (18:6).  Babylon’s atrocities and God’s retribution go together to make the double draught.  From an earthly point of view, Babylon herself sheds the great river of blood by which the soil of her own territory is saturated and made drunk.  But to the eyes of faith, the cup which will send Babylon reeling to her doom is being prepared in “the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God.”

The place of the crucifixion was outside the city (14:20), so it was also the proper place for the martyrdom of those who held to the testimony of Jesus (cf. Heb. 13:12-13).  Whatever element of judgment there is in the vintage, it is analogous to the judgment of the world achieved once and for all on the cross.

The implications of this interpretation are broader than one might think.  The call here is for an all-encompassing discipleship, not just a literal martyrdom.

 

Summary

Chapter 13 pictures an “anti-Trinity.”  The dragon is anti-God, the beast from the sea is anti-Christ, and the beast from the land, the false prophet, is anti-Holy Spirit.  Central in this chapter are the ideas of imitation and deception, and the spiritual nature of Satan’s activities.  These are not separate from the material world and social and political structures, but rather are infused in them.  People’s choices of where they work, how they spend their money, their political involvement—these are religious choices.

The first beast is pictured here in political terms (“thrones” and “diadems”).  Rome is probably in mind, given the reality of emperor worship and persecution of Christians.  But the beast’s manifestations are not limited to the Roman Empire.  The beast is active in any government that asks ultimate loyalty and is thereby worshiped.

The “obedience” and “testimony” of Jesus and his followers wound the beast’s “head.”  Christians’ immorality, idolatry, and lack of witness restore its power.

Verse 9 (“If any one has an ear, let him hear”) refers back to the seven letters and highlights the need to listen to and obey the command that follows.  The call in 13:10 is for patient endurance and non-retaliation.  The people of God are kept safe in the end if they reject the beast and refuse to become like the beast by fighting back.

The second beast (13:11) is called the false prophet and protrays false religion.  The power of the dragon and the beast is deception.  Their only power is the power that peopl give them.  This beast is the “propagandist” (Like Hitler’s Goebbels).  The “image of the beast” refers perhaps to emperor worship but more generally to whatever concrete thing is used to cause false worship.

The first five verses of chapter 14 stand in important contrast to chapter 13.  If the purpose of chapter 13 is to show the true nature of Roman emperor worship and all other similar demands for ultimate loyalty made by the state since then (and the need for Christians to say no even if it means suffering and tribulation), then the purpose of 14:1-5 is to show the ultimate reality—that the Lamb is victorious and that those who follow him are also victorious.  The beast’s conquering (13:7) was only temporary and superficial.  The faithful ones’ real fate is that of singing on Mount Zion.

Verses 6 and 7 are intended to underscore the fact that God’s purposes are redemptive.  The hope that the plagues will bring about repentance is based not only on the fears that they will precipitate but also the continued, simultaneous offer of the gospel.

Verses 9-13 emphasize how crucial people’s choices are.  What is at stake during the “three and one half years” between Christ’s first and second comings is people’s loyalty.  God has defeated Satan, but God wants no more than is absolutely necessary to meet Satan’s destruction.  We become like what we worship—the beast or the Lamb.

Verses 14-20 picture judgment.  The grain harvest shows general judgment of the good and the evil.  No one will escape.  The grape harvest is a picture of the suffering of the faithful, whose blood will make up the double draught of wrath that will bring down the great harlot (18:6), who is another personification of the great anti-God city.

Babylon is guilty of shedding the blood, just like the rulers of this age were guilty of shedding Jesus’ blood.  These are the very acts that bring about the destruction.

 

Meditation

The central message of Revelation is that the Lamb of God has defeated the powers of evil, and that this act leads to the eventual destruction of all that opposes God.  This affirmation arose in the midst of a practical awareness of the power of evil in the world.  John and his readers were facing many tribulations on account of following Jesus.  At the beginning of the book, John states that he shares with his readers “the suffering and kingdom and patient endurance that are ours in Jesus” (1:9 NIV).  For him this included being exiled on the prison island of Patmos.  In the leters to the seven churches we read of persecutions and martyrdom.  Later on, we read more about martyrdom.  Why was it that these Christians faced such difficulties?

The people of God have always been a threat to the “powers that be.”  This was true from the time of the Exodus when God liberated Israel from slavery in Egypt to the times of the prophets who called Israel back to the justice of God.   It was the same in the time of Jesus, who came to preach good news to the poor and outcast and imprisoned and who practiced what he preached.  There have always been people sensitive to God’s call not to accept the values of the present age, the values of those who exploit the weak, and the private accumulation of power and wealth.  These people have always been unpopular with the power structures upheld by these age-old values.  This would most certainly have been the situation with the Christian of John’s day.  We can see this in the letters to the seven churches where the churches least troubled by persecution were the ones most at home in the world.

John and his readers faced a specific problem.  It was not so different from the general tension between God’s ways and the values of the old order, but of much more intensity.  This problem had to do with hostility from the Roman Empire.

In the period of time shortly before Christ was born, a movement toward emperor worship arose with the Roman Empire.  At the beginning it was more a worship of the empire than of a specific emperor.  It was a grassroots development and has arisen because of the gratitude which people felt for the social order and stability afforded by the Pax Romana (“peace of Rome”).  But because the emperor symbolized the empire and was more tangible, this worship soon focused on him.

In the beginning this new religion was at best tolerated by the emperors, who felt somewhat uneasy with being considered divine.  But soon the social value of emperor religion became obvious.  The Roman Empire included a large variety of nationalities, and the emperors saw common religion based on emperor worship as ahelpful, even essential way to ensure unity within the empire.

With this religion you could keep your own religion also, but the bottom line was the confession that the emperor is lord.  For Christians, there was never a question as to whether they could go along with this.  Jesus was lord, not Caesar.  Their commitment to integrity meant that they could not pretend to confess that Caesar was lord while still believing on the inside that Jesus was the only lord.

Because the Christians refused to render worship to Caesar, they were seen as threats to the stability of the social order.  This was not simply a religious issue; they were not simply heretics who did not believe the correct doctrine.  Rather, they were dangerous rebels refusing loyalty to the emperor.

Perhaps we can see a similarity with young men who refuse to register for the draft today or who have resisted the draft in recent years.  This is a problem to the state, but not primarily because the state needs the bodies of these specific young men.  These kind of people would not make good soliders anyhow.  It is a problem because the young men refuse to give their ultimate loyalty to the state.  They are threatening the social unity necessary for the state to maintain its power.

This call for emperor worship, the refusal of Christians to give it, and the resultant persecution and even martyrdom that resulted, provides the background for the visions John sees in Revelation 13.

The dragon spoken of here is labeled in Revelation 20:2 as “that ancient serpent, who is the Devil and Satan.”  What is described in chapter 13 symbolizes Satan’s efforts to cause as much harm as he can on the earth in the time between his defeat at the resurrection of Christ (described in chapter 12 as his being thrown out of heaven) and his final destruction at the end of time.

To do this work, Satan has chosen as his agent two beasts.  One comes out of the sea in 13:1 and the other comes out of the earth in 13:11.  The description of these beasts contains a greatr deal of obscure imagery, but enough can be discerned to say that the first beast at least in part refers to the Roman Empire and the second beast represents emperor worship.

The first beast, the sea beast, uttered blasphemies against God, called upon all people to worship it, and made war against God’s people.  Authority was given to it over every tribe and people and tongue and nation.  All these things were true of Rome.  It called itself supreme and required total allegiance from its people.  It had control over almost the whole known world and was persecuting the church during the latter part of the first century.  Such was its power that people asked in wonder, “Who is like it, and who can stand against it?”

However, the people of God were told not to despair and above all not to retaliate.  “If any one is to be taken captive, to capitivty he goes; if any one slays with the sword, with the sword must he be slain.  Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (13:10).

The real threat to God’s people from the beast is that not they might be killed.  The threat is that they might worship the beast.  The real threat was not Rome’s sword, but Rome’s ideology.

John’s vision, however, did not end with chapter 13 and the seemingly hopeless picture presented there.  Despite the overwhelming power and authority which the beast possesses in chapter 13, John sees in the first five verses of chapter 14 the holder of the ultimate power of the universe.  He sees a vision of the Lamb surrounded by his people, the 144,000—the whole people of God.  This vision is a sign that God is still in control.

The relevance of this vision to John’s readers was that the way to fight against the beast was, as 14:4 says, to “follow the Lamb wherever he goes.”  Chapter 5 tells us that the Lamb who was slain is the master of history.  The Lamb who defeated evil through the way of love is the model.

According to these visions, there are two realities for the followers of the Lamb, both true at the same time.  One reality is that of being warred upon by the beast and, at least in John’s setting, being conquered by the beast.  For John that meant being exiled to Patmos.  For Jesus it meant being crucified.  For others it meant martyrdom.  But the other reality, and the one that is ultimate, is that of redemption—being at one with God, experiencing a sense of hope and security in the midst of tribulations and persecutions and evil.

John was writing to specific people facing specific problems.  Clearly the problem here in mind is persecution from Rome and the demands Rome is making for Christians’ allegiance.  John is, in effect, calling upon his readers to remain strong, to have faith that Jesus’ victory is real, and to hold fast to Jesus’ way of love—the only way to deal with the beast.

Rome was only one manifestation of a spirit of cultural and political idolatry that has always existed and continues to exist.  The term which is often used of the beast, though it never actually appears in Revelation, is “antichrist.”  This seems like an appropriate term since the beast is mimicking the Lamb and stands for the exact opposite of what Jesus stands for.

In relation to this passage, the antichrist should not be seen as a specific person such as Napoleon or the pope or Henry Kissinger.  Rather, the antichrist is a spirit that is manifested every time people put their trust in values and institutions opposite of Jesus.

The spirit of antichrist is present when people’s loyalties to idolatrous nationalism leads them to take the lives of their “enemies.”  It is present when people’s commitments to prosperity and the American dream causes them to close their eyes to others literally starving around them.  The spirit of antichrist is at work in our world.  To the question, “Who is like the beast and who can stand against it?” our only answer is, like for John, “The Lamb who was slain.”

We are called to follow him wherever he goes.  Only in this way can we fight against the beast.  A common term for this “fight” is the “Lamb’s war.”  This “war” is fought with the weapons mentioned in Ephesians six: truth, justice, the gospel of peace, faith, and prayer.

In John’s day, one clear test was whether they would worship the emperor.  Our tests, perhaps, are not so clear.  But we face them nevertheless.  Our commitments to Jesus’ way are continually tested.  We are constantly tempted to give up hope, to think that evil is too powerful in our world.  But John’s vision reminds us that the Lamb is victorious.  Let us follow his way.

 

Questions for Thought and Discussion

(1) How would you compare God’s power and Satan’s power?  Is the difference only that one is stronger?  Or are they different kinds of power?  How can we discern which is which today?  Can you think of examples?  Or is everything too gray?

(2)  Do you agree with this “political” reading of Revelation 13?  Do the images here have any relevance in the present-day United States?  How about the present-day Soviet Union?  Present-day South Africa?  Is it related to all countries, no countries, or some particularly evil countries?  What are we told to do in response to the beast (cf. 13:10)?

(3)  Do present-day governments demand that people render to Caesar and to the state that which belongs to God alone?  What about (in the United States) war taxes? abortion taxes? education taxes? conscription? loyalty oaths? pledges of allegiance?

(4)  Do you agree that the only authority the beast has to exercise on earth is that which people themselves give it?  If that is so, what are the implications with regard to resisting that authority?

(5)  How can the beast’s rebellion be part of God’s plan?

(6)  Do you agree that the real threat of the beast to the church is not its sword but its divine pretensions supported from within the church?  What evidence is there for this in present-day North America?

(7)  Why would John so strongly emphasize the need for Christians not to fight back against the beast (13:9-10)?  What might this mean today?

(8)  How does the false prophet deceive today?  Where might you be especially vulnerable to its deception?  What is the “mark of the beast” today?

(9)  Can the song of 14:1-5 have any meaning for those not part of the conflict of chapter 13 out of which it arises?  That is to say, if we do not know 13:7 can we know 14:5?

(10)  What are the implications of “following the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4) for resisting the beast’s demands reflected in chapter 13?  Does Jesus’ example have any relevance for present-day political life (meaning our present-day relation to and involvement in our nation’s political life)?  If so, what?  If not, why not and where else can we look for guidance?

(11)  The idea of “first fruits” (14:4) implies election.  Do you see yourself as part of God’s firstfruits elected for the sake of moving humankind toward the New Jerusalem?  If so, how does that affect your life?

(12)  What might it mean to worship the beast (14:9-11) in our world today?  What are the cutting edges in the present-day struggle between God and Satan for people’s loyalty?  Do you find the church (and yours in particular) a help or hindrance in this struggle?  How could it help more?

(13)  Do you share the sentiments of 14:13 with regard to the possibility of your own death?  How is it that we can love life, hate death, and yet not fear death?

(14)  Is it believable to you that suffering and martyrdom could be important means used by God to destroy evil?  If so, does that belief affect how you live?

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