Revelation chapter thirteen
In chapter thirteen we read of the war with the woman’s seed in greater detail as we hear of persecution by the beast from the sea and also the beast from the land. In light of this, what we have in chapter thirteen is an expansion and a deepening of what has already been said in chapter twelve as we read of the agents through whom Satan works and the idolatry, suffering and the failure of man. In seeing this we understand that the imagery of chapter thirteen not only expands on what has previously been said but also speaks of what is going on in every era of history.
In every era of history man has sought to live in his own strength and as if the world’s resources, including fellow-man at times, were his to do with as he pleases. Therefore the imagery in chapter thirteen is not so much that which has one beginning and one end, as that which has many beginnings and many endings. These ‘beginnings and endings’ reveal themselves across history and in many forms, whether in the work of Hitler, or in the theory of evolution, yet there really is nothing new under the sun (Eccl 1:9). However in every generation that has ever lived there are those who need to see that there is a loving God who reaches out to fallen man.
“….Genuine communion with God is never removed from the seasons, times, and crises of life.”
Prof W. Brueggemann in, ‘The message of the psalms’ page 170
Beasts that come and go.
In many respects the ‘beasts’ mentioned in Revelation come and go and will do so as they continue to unite people under false ideology and persuasive ideas that imprison and damage the mind. In this sense, we see that it is not just a case of when a beast appears, but the ongoing continuous onslaught of false ideology under its many guises; yet there is always hope because the Lamb of God is building His church and the gates of Hades will not prevail.
When we move into chapter fourteen the camera will swing round to focus on the Lamb of God and His people yet again, recognising that in this world there is no middle ground. Everyone belongs to either someone (Jesus) or something (their own thought patterns or those imposed on them by others).
The beast coming out of the sea depicts Rome.
The Roman Empire was covered by major road systems allowing her army to travel at above average speed compared with other armies of the day. The road systems also provided safe and secure trade routes helping commercial enterprise to develop.
Rome also relied heavily on trade across the Mediterranean and Black Seas and built large harbours to cope with the huge tonnage of goods brought in by ships which seemed to rise out of the sea as they appeared on the horizon along the coast of Asia Minor. In light of this, we see how Rome is depicted as the ‘beast coming out of the sea,’ with the horns and head of the beast speaking of power and the flourishing of evil. The description of the beast in this chapter includes the imagery of a leopard, a bear and a lion, reminding us of the beasts mentioned in Daniel which represent separate kingdoms (Dan 3). In Rome we have the assimilation of all previous kingdoms under the rule of the all-powerful Emperors who saw themselves as God (thus uttering blasphemies). All that stood in the path of Rome was pushed aside or conquered.
The dragon, seeking to imitate God and act as if it were all powerful, gives power and authority to the beast and the healing of a fatal wound on the beast is a pseudo-resurrection seeking to emulate the resurrection of Jesus as if offering a false messiah. Evil continues to rise but it rises only to fall again.
The beast depicts Nero and all ‘Neros’ who follow.
The fatal wound and the so-called healing could refer to the supposed ‘resurrection’ of Nero who left Rome in a hurry when the Praetorian Guard rose against him. Nero was declared a public enemy and committed suicide on June 9th AD 68 but rumours soon started to circulate (especially in the East) saying that Nero would rise up and take vengeance on those who had opposed him. The Jewish Sibylline Oracles were thought to prophesise this rise and other rumours said he would one day return from Parthia. During Domitian’s reign (the time of John’s writing) there was even a Nero figure that persuaded the Parthians – sworn enemies of Rome - to invade the empire.
Nero killed thousands of Christians during his reign and was known for an infamous garden party where Christians were tarred, feathered and crucified. Due to his evil nature (which included kicking one of his wives to death), Nero became a term for the antichrist in the Armenian language. After his death the empire went through a year of turmoil as various candidates sought to take the throne.
“To many of his subjects Nero’s tyranny was obvious and hated: in his case the true nature of the beast became more apparent than usual. Towards the end of Nero’s reign there were serious revolts in the provinces. His death was followed by the chaotic ‘year of the four emperors’. But the imperial power recovered with the Flavian dynasty. From the brink of collapse it emerged as apparently invincible, so that, according to the vision, the whole world cried, “who is like the beast, and who can fight against it?” The words are a parody of the celebration of God’s power in the Song of Moses (Exodus 15:11).”
R. Bauckham in ‘The Theology of the Book of Revelation’ page 37
The year of the four emperors: Evil has few friends.
Nero has gone to the dust of the ground and is awaiting judgement and the year is now AD69. The Roman Empire is now caught up in all manner of internal strife as four generals (Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian) flex their muscles and vie for power; hence the year of the four emperors.
Throughout this year, provinces wanting to throw off the yoke of Rome must have looked on with glee as they hoped for the demise of the Empire, whilst many religious people saw it as judgement from God.
However, the Empire recovered and so we have what appears a fatally wounded beast recovering. Throughout history evil reappears in many forms through dictatorships, ideologies and false religion. At the end of the year of the four emperors Vespasian, and what became the Imperial Flavian dynasty, was in power. In pausing to look at the year of the four emperors we remind ourselves that evil seeks to control even its own.
Galba, the first emperor who ruled from AD68 to AD69 and who cancelled Nero’s reforms and executed anyone he thought would oppose him. The Praetorian Guard did not like this and in the January of AD69 the Roman legions of Germania refused to swear allegiance to Galba and made their governor, Vitellius Emperor. Meanwhile the Praetorian Guard was bribed by a man called Marcus Salvius Otho and Galba was killed. Evil has no real allies.
The Roman Senate now recognised Salvius Otho as Emperor (on the day Galba was assassinated!), but unfortunately for them Vitellius, the man put in place by the praetorian guard, was supported by the strongest legions of the empire. Otho wanted peace but was defeated by Vitellius’ generals at the Battle of Bedriacum. Otho’s career move was not a good choice and he commits suicide having been emperor for just over three months – not much of a claim to fame. So what is the Senate going to do now?
The Senate hedges its bets and Vitellius is immediately recognized as emperor, however he proves to be another bad choice. Vitellius lets power and riches go to his head and throws so many banquets and parades that the imperial treasury starts moving towards bankruptcy at a fast rate of knots. As if this was not bad enough Vitellius then tortures and kills all the money-lenders who ask him to repay the loans they made to him. Vitellius also puts to death those who had named him as beneficiary in their wills, in order to gain more money as quickly as possible! When you put someone in power you soon begin to see what they are really like.
Whilst all this is going on with Vitellius the legions in Egypt and those in Judea and Syria acclaim Vespasian as emperor. Vespasian was the ‘tough-nut’ whom Nero had commanded to put down the Jewish revolt in 67AD.
In October 69AD Vespasian’s armies marched on Italy and defeated Vitellius’ army at the Second Battle of Bedriacum; Vitellius was caught and put to death. The following day (20th December 69), the Senate acknowledged Vespasian as emperor. Shortly after this in Ad 70 we see the fall of Jerusalem as Rome continues to flex its muscles, Rome being the “one who can make war against him” in Revelation 13:4, who sought to control and oppress whatever or whomever stood in its path. However the power of this beast or any beast is limited as is seen in the mention of ‘forty-two months’ (Rev 13:5), with this time period linking us to Daniel 7 as mentioned elsewhere.
The ‘forty-two’ months represent the period between the resurrection of Christ and the final culmination of history. It is symbolically ‘forty-two’ months because this was the length of Jesus’ early ministry and we are called to look at how He lived and to be encouraged in knowing that He who began a good work in us will bring it to completion (Phil 1:6). God allows this world to reap what it sows to whatever degree He sees fit and no power or authority is outside of His control.
“Because governmental authority should be a servant of God for the good of God’s people, it is inconceivable that a government can use the sword not to establish justice but to maintain injustice; not to secure liberation but to maintain slavery; not to break down but to maintain structures of oppression and inhumanity – and still be an agent of God. No. When this happens, this power becomes the beast from the sea. When government no longer distinguishes between good and evil, between what is humanising and what is not, it is no longer the servant of God but the beast from the sea.”
A. Boesak in ‘Comfort and Protest’ page 99.
In Rev 13:8 we read of the inhabitants of the earth (referring to those under the power of Rome) who are worshipping the beast (Rome). As has already been said many Roman Emperors (e.g. Diocletian) thought of themselves as gods or demi-gods and the only group that really stood out against them were those who had their names in the Lamb’s book of life – the Christians. The might of Rome often came against Christians through persecution, imprisonment and the Roman arena, yet the church continued to stand in the strength and power of the, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” One.
Throughout the history of the world kingdoms have come and kingdoms have gone with political powers and dictatorships demanding total allegiance to their ideologies (e.g. Communism) and heads of state (e.g. Kim Jung Un). In this sense the ‘beast’ has been and will continue to arise in various forms and different ways as history continues. However, as we have noted, the church, though struggling at times, continues to stand. Christians are the most persecuted people on earth, yet still the church continues to grow, pointing to its supernatural origin and the presence of the Holy Spirit.
“Christianity is the reality of communion with God in the present life; it is the understanding that there is the indwelling of the Holy Spirit; it is the understanding that there is the moment-by-moment empowering of the Holy Spirit. Christianity is the understanding that the fruit of the Spirit is “love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.” It is the understanding that the fruit of the Spirit is meant to mean something real to all Christians. It is the understanding that prayer is real and not just a devotional exercise.”
Dr F. Shaeffer in, ‘The New Spirituality’ p 400.
In moving on to Revelation 13:10 we then read that if “anyone is to go into captivity into captivity he will go and if anyone is to be killed with the sword, with the sword he will be killed.” Although these words may seem strange to us, they are spoken to encourage John’s readers. In a world where success was so often measured in power, prestige and wealth John points out that imprisonment, suffering and death are also incorporated in God’s plan. There is no “God has forgotten me” place in this world. We live in a world which reaps what it sows to whatever degree or measure God allows and we can all be affected in one way or another; yet God is always in control.
“Here, the reference is to God’s faithful servants, giving them the assurance that in the suffering of imprisonment or death nothing happens to them that is not under God’s control or contrary to his will. In all things the Lord rules and overrules. Those who face captivity or sword may be sure that it is in accord with his plan. It is in the acceptance of affliction that the endurance and faith of the saints are triumphantly demonstrated.”
Dr. P. E. Hughes in, ‘The Book of Revelation’ page 150
He knows our suffering.
In Luke’s gospel the angelic host praises God before a group of marginalised shepherds at the birth of the One (Luke 2:13-15) who came to rescue, redeem and bless wayward people such as you and me. In Jesus’ life and ministry He continually revealed the power, love, compassion, mercy and grace of God at every turn of the page and, in doing so demonstrated what a true relationship with our heavenly Father should be like. Yet He suffered at the hands of religious people, was abandoned by many of His friends and endured a horrific death as judgmeent fell on an innocent victim standing as our representative. The Son of God is the only person who never needed to suffer in any way, but chose to enter our suffering so that we could experience forgiveness and reconciliation with His Father. In His life the author and perfecter of our faith (Heb 12:2) knew what it was to suffer and we would do well to remember this.
“For some, it will be a surprise to learn that Life with a capital L doesn’t start by trying to be more spiritual. It starts with becoming more fully human under God’s direction. It doesn’t come with a permanent, plastered-on smile, a get-out-of-jail-free card, or an exemption from pain. But it does come with Jesus Christ’s assurance that he will put our feet on the path and get us Home.”
M. Heard in, ‘Life with a capital L’, page 3.
Christianity is no get out of trouble card in a cosmic plan we know nothing about. We know that Jesus came and suffered and died in our place and we know that life will involve suffering at times as we continue to shine His light in a broken world. Families are torn apart and caring, generous, ordinary people are persecuted and killed, yet the gospel continues to shine and heaven continues to welcome her saints, whilst those of us who remain are encouraged in the presence of the Holy Spirit.
For example during the persecution of Christians under the Communist regime in Russia, thousands of Christians were imprisoned for their faith. Yet instead of saying, “Why is this happening to me”? they, like millions of others before them, continued to share the word of God in the power of the Holy Spirit with all who would listen. It was because of such a witness that men like Alexander Solzhenitsyn, a Nobel Laureate whose writing exposed the horrors of Russian prison camps, came to know Christ as Lord and Saviour.
In Solzhenitsyn’s book, ‘The Gulag Archipelago’ (p 612-615), he speaks of the impact that the words of a Jewish Christian doctor had upon his life. Boris Kornfeld, the doctor, was to lose his life the very night he spoke to Solzhenitsyn, yet his words lived on and were instrumental in Alexander Solzhenitsyn becoming born- again.
All across the world we continue to hear of Christians being persecuted and killed for their faith, yet at the same time we see churches springing up in the most unlikely of areas and sometimes being birthed by Christians who were once persecutors of the faith, as was the apostle Paul. There has never been (nor ever will be) a point in time where God is not in overall control of what is going on and although evil continues to threaten, it has a beginning and an end and will not last.
The second beast (Rev 13:11).
The second beast (from the land) represents the Roman administration and their councils which supervised the Imperial cult as it sought to coerce or force people into idolatry. This is why the beast is spoken of as having two horns like a lamb yet speaks like a dragon as it seeks to present a false Messianic ideology combined with military strength and power. Within the empire there were also many who claimed to be miracle workers and there would have undoubtedly been the mixing of state religion and occult power.
All across the Roman Empire there were temples and belief systems that continually sought to validate their claims with ‘miracles’ such as those from the healing cults.
The ‘fire from heaven’ mentioned in verse 13 reminds us, in a positive way, of Elijah calling down fire from heaven on Mount Carmel as God reveals His grace and mercy to a ‘should have known better’ people and calls them back to Himself. In the enemy operating in supernatural means, collectively spoken of as ‘fire from heaven,’ we have the power of darkness seeking to prove itself and control all who question it. Only recently as I write, there was the case of people claiming that an earthquake occurred because local gods had been displeased. I also remember a particular incident when I was pastoring a church in London when men and women lined up outside a Hindu Temple in Neasden in order to give a spoonful of milk to a statue that some people claimed was drinking milk. Darkness masquerades as light (2 Cor 11:14) as it seeks to control, yet ultimately it can only go as far as God allows it to.
Everyone has a mark.
In Revelation 13:17 we read of people not being able to buy or sell unless they had the mark which was the name of the beast or the number of his name. We are going to look at this at a later stage in our studies but for now we will briefly comment on the mark, spoken of as being on the forehead or the hand (Rev 13:16). We begin by looking at a passage in Exodus where signs on the head and hand are mentioned…
"After the Lord brings you into the land of the Canaanites and gives it to you, as he promised on oath to you and your forefathers, you are to give over to the Lord the first offspring of every womb. All the firstborn males of your livestock belong to the Lord. Redeem with a lamb every firstborn donkey, but if you do not redeem it, break its neck. Redeem every firstborn among your sons. "In days to come when your son asks you, 'What does this mean?' say to him, 'With a mighty hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. When Pharaoh stubbornly refused to let us go, the Lord killed every firstborn in Egypt, both man and animal. This is why I sacrifice to the Lord the first male offspring of every womb and redeem each of my firstborn sons.' And it will be like a sign on your hand and a symbol on your forehead that the Lord brought us out of Egypt with his mighty hand." Exodus 13:11-16.
In Judaism two small cases (phylacteries) containing parts of the Torah written on parchment were worn by male Jews on the forehead and on the arm at morning and afternoon services as a reminder that it was God’s law which is to direct man’s thinking and actions. In light of this, the fruit of the mark is the actions of the individual which clearly show who they belonged to: God.
In the Roman Empire the term for ‘mark’ has a variety of pictures attached to it. For example, the mark could refer to the imperial stamp on documents and the image of the emperor on the coinage of the day. It could also refer to the mark caused by branding soldiers or slaves as a sign of loyalty to the state or ownership by a master. Along with this there were also the marks of particular guilds which allowed you freedom of passage to similar guilds across the empire, whilst at the opposite end of the scale brands were sometimes placed on those forced out of guilds. In John’s day the Emperor Domitian revived imperial cult worship and amongst other things deified his brother Titus in an empire that often conflated power, politics and religion as a means of controlling the general populace.
Revelation is a book full of symbolism and the ‘mark’ of Rev 13:15 speaks of the influence of the environment and worldly thinking upon the mind and heart, whilst the mark on the right hand speaks of the outworking of this in daily life.
In understanding that the mark which John speaks of is symbolic of all that controls we should not go round looking for a literal mark, as indeed we would not expect a literal two-horned lamb to suddenly appear in history. After all we do not expect Jesus to literally appear as a green plant when He says, “I am the Vine” (John 15:5).
Symbolism in Revelation always points to someone or something and a simple modern day example of the mark could be along the lines of the wrong attitude a young boy has towards an opposing football team because he sees his father shouting obscenities and belittling it. In a much more dangerous and influential setting the ‘mark’ can refer to the attitude of ISIS in the way it seeks to dominate the lives of others through fear, torture and death.
“Satanic evil expressed itself through the kingdoms of Assyria, Egypt, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Sodom and Rome. This system of evil will continue so to manifest itself as well in economic, social, and religious structures on earth.”
A.F. Johnson, in “Revelation” page 525.
A few years ago I came across a situation that reminded me of the mark (influence) in a social setting where a Christian group was not able to receive a grant from its local government. At that time the local council (consisting of members from different religious backgrounds) refused to renew the grant for a Christian based work because it had a small chapel on the premises. This happened despite statistics showing that this particular charity had a far greater success rate with its clients than other groups working in the same field. If the group had removed the chapel they would have, in a sense, worn the ‘mark’ of society.
The mark of the beast incorporates subtle allegiance to the ideologies of the day. The fruit of this is then seen in the view people have of God, their attitudes towards fellow man and the anger, bitterness, hatred and judgemental attitudes by which many live. On the other hand, the mark of the Spirit speaks of grace, mercy, freedom, power and the ability to receive and give out no matter what goes on around us.
“For no matter how many promises God has made, they are "Yes" in Christ. And so through him the "Amen" is spoken by us to the glory of God.” 2 Cor 1:20
The mark of the beast is 666.
“John implies that 666 is the sum of the values of the letters in a person’s name. The practice was not uncommon. On the level of street culture, for example, a graffiti artist at Pompeii used a number for the name of his beloved when he scrawled on the wall: “I love her whose number is 545. “
C.Koester in, ‘Revelation and the End of all Things,’ page 132
There are many who have sought to identify one specific person with the number ‘666’ and, although in Rev 13 it points to Nero, the number 666 does not stop there. This is because the number 666 points to the failure of man (mentally, physically and spiritually) in all areas of life with six being the ‘less than seven’ number which symbolises perfection. In both the sixth seal (Rev 6:12f) and the sixth trumpet (Rev 9:13-19) we see that judgement will fall on the imperfect and rebellious ways of man and the forces of darkness.
In many respects the number 666 symbolizes the ‘perfection’ of man’s own system which is separate from God and influenced by darkness. Three of these areas of ‘perfected failure’ are false religion, false government and a self-centered economic system. In 1 John 2:15-17 we are told that we are not to love this sort of world with the world being mentioned six times, again underlining man’s inability to achieve God’s perfection.
“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world — the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does — comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives for ever.”
1 John 2:15-17
The mark of God.
“And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God's possession — to the praise of his glory.”
In the above verses Paul speaks of us as being marked with a seal. This mark is not a literal mark (as indeed the seal is not a literal seal), but points to the work of the Holy Spirit in and through our lives. The ‘mark’ is then the fruit and gifting of the Spirit that grows out of our relationship with God and the blessings of His presence in all that we go through – even the death of loved ones.
In his book, ‘A Compassionate Call to Counter-Culture’, David Platt shares the story of a couple sold out for the Lord Jesus Christ, despite incredible opposition. He writes –
“I think of Sahil in South Asia. He and his wife both grew up in Muslim homes. She came to Christ first, and then she introduced Sahil to Christ. As soon as their families discovered they had become Christians, Sahil and his wife were forced to flee their community. In the years that followed, they grew in Christ and in their desire to see their family know Christ. Slowly their family members began to respond. They eventually welcomed Sahil and his wife back to their community, and from all appearances things were going well, until one day Sahil dropped off his wife for a meal with her family while he went to be with his family. His wife sat down at the table with her family and began to drink and eat. Within moments she was dead. Her own parents had poisoned her. When I met Sahil, I met a man who had lost his wife, but he had not lost his faith. He now works as a church planter in his country.”
D. Platt in, ‘A Compassionate Call to Counter-Culture’, page 231.
God is the One who gives us the ability to think and act the right way through helping us understand who we are (Gen 1:27; 2:8) and how we were created to live (Prov 3:5-6). He is the One who enables us to live, work, rest and grow into maturity (Rom 12:2; Eph 3:12) as the people we would have become were it not for man’s fall into sin and subsequent rebellion. When Israel acknowledged God in both word and deed (thinking = forehead and living = hand) she lived in freedom through covenant fellowship with God. She revealed herself to be marked out by God as a light to the gentiles (Isaiah 42:6-7; 51:4-5). Likewise through Christ we are called to let our light shine before men (Matt 6:15) as those who walk in the power and freedom of the Spirit.