Sunday School Notes: Revelation 13:7

7 And it was given to him to make war against the saints and to have victory over them, and authority was given to him over every tribe, and people, and tongue, and nation.

Again, this time we didn’t make a lot of progress, partly due to a late start, and also due to the conversation, largely around the concept of God granting authority to evil rulers to persecute His people. Verse 7 confronts us with that very idea. The beast is given permission to war against the saints, and not only fight them, but be victorious. We noted previously that the Greek of verse 5 says the beast was given authority “to act.” Some manuscripts replace “to act” with “to wage war,” and while that’s probably not the original reading, it is a legitimate interpretation, anticipating verse 7.

We understand that it is God who is granting such authority to the beast on account of

  • The use of the passive voice, which is often used in Scripture to denote divine activity.
  • The dragon not being in the immediate context, so the authority is unlikely to be of Satanic origin.
  • The fact that the speaking and the action were for a limited time, something that only God would do (surely Satan would want to speak and act against God and His people forever?), and only God could do, since only He knows how long it will be between the Resurrection and the End.
  • The fact that no-one could successfully wage such a devastating attack against God’s people unless God was behind it, commissioning and authorizing it. Just as God limited Satan with regard to his activity against Job (see Job 1 and 2), God restricts His enemies with regard to the extent they can afflict His church.

I won’t reproduce the entirety of our conversation on the subject of suffering, and God’s role in it. However, I will highlight a couple of points that came out in the discussion. First, it is hard to conceive of God actually actively commissioning suffering for His people. When we see pictures of persecution, like the Christians in Syria who suffer death for their faith at the hands of ISIS, we can’t imagine what it’s like to face death so bravely. Here in the West, we haven’t had to face persecution like that, and hopefully we never will. In fact, given the state of the church in the West, it’s hard to imagine many standing up for Christ, so diluted it seems the gospel message has become in many places. And yet, that is what we are called to do. The letters in chapters 2 and 3 show churches facing such compromise with society, and Christ’s warnings to those who would deny him to befriend the world. There may be hope in the fact that these were warnings, and there is yet opportunity for such churches to return to the saving gospel of grace. But ultimately, Christ’s message to the church is that the church will always suffer, and that suffering won’t diminish until the end. The promise we look forward to, however, is not earthly victory, or an earthly kingdom, but to an eternal promise. Christ has already won the victory for us through his death and resurrection. Whatever might happen to our bodies and our property in the meantime, we know our souls are secure. This may not make the suffering any easier to bear, but it should give us hope that this is not the end, and on the other side of suffering there is glory, and the Father’s eternal presence. And behind all this suffering is the loving hand of our Lord, who is working all things for His glory and our good.

We recalled in verse 6 how the beast “blasphemes” the “heaven-dwellers.” In other words, the beast not only reviles God, but also God’s people, the church. This is a timely reminder to us (and to the world) of the way God views His people. The church is the Lord’s, and as such, it seems He takes any and all attacks against her very seriously. To attack the Lord’s church is to slander the Lord. There is Old Testament precedent for this in that the Lord did not take kindly to those that attacked Israel. Isaiah 10 tells of how the Lord punished Assyria for what they did to Israel, even though the Assyrian invasion was something God planned as punishment on Israel for their sin. God did not make the Assyrians act contrary to their desire, and the fact that desire existed in the hearts of the Assyrians was enough to condemn them. But this is also a reminder to us to beware speaking ill of fellow Christians and other churches with which we may have theological disagreements. Yes, there are serious and essential doctrinal truths and practices that define a true Christian church, but these are relatively few (the Trinity, justification by grace through faith alone, the Lord’s supper, baptism, and church discipline cover many of the main ones). But most issues that pit Christian brother against Christian brother are of relatively minor importance: mode of baptism, Bible translations, music style, theologically Reformed or Arminian, and so on. These are important issues for discussion, but they don’t determine who is and is not a true Christian, or what is and is not a faithful, gospel-preaching church. Could it be that to accuse true brethren of being unbelievers is slander on the level of the “blasphemy” that comes from the mouth of the beast? I think that’s worth prayerful consideration.

There appears to be a connection between 13:7 and chapter 11, with the measuring of the temple and the witness of the church. John told us in that passage that the two witnesses (i.e., the faithful church) ministered for 1,260 days (i.e., 42 months), after which time a beast rose up from the abyss to make war on them and conquer them (11:7). It seems very possible, maybe even probable, that this is the same beast we are talking about in chapter 13. We’ve said before that the visions in Revelation are not necessarily chronologically sequential, and, indeed, there seems to be a lot of overlap and repetition. It’s more likely that the visions each show a different aspect of the same time frame, or the same event. In which case, chapter 13 is an elaboration on the events in 11:7.

Finally in verse 7, John tells us the beast is also given authority over every tribe, people, tongue, and nation. If this list seems familiar, it should be: we saw this same list in 5:9, and the declaration that the Lamb is worthy because he was slain and by his blood he redeemed people from every tribe, tongue, people, and nation. The purpose of this list is to say “everyone, everywhere regardless of national, racial, or societal barriers.” In Revelation 5, it means that God’s people, those redeemed by the blood of Christ, come from every sector of humanity. In Revelation 13, it means that the beast has likewise drawn followers from every sector of humanity. The fact the same terms are used in both is a further indication of the beast’s attempt to mirror the work of Christ. The beast is, essentially, a parody of Christ–a false Christ.

Lord willing, we’ll start with verse 8 next time!

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