Sunday School Notes: Revelation 13:14-17

14 …and that he might lead astray those dwelling on the earth on account of the signs which were given to him to do in the presence of the beast, telling those dwelling upon the earth to make an image to the beast who has the wound of the sword and lived. 15 And it was given to him to give breath to the image of the beast, so that the image of the beast might speak and act [so that] as many as might not worship the image of the beast may be killed. 16 And he makes all, the small and the great, and the rich and the poor, and the free and the slaves, so that he might give to them a mark upon their right hand or upon their forehead, 17 and so that no-one may be able to buy or sell except the one having the mark–the name of the beast, or the number of his name.

Last time we started talking about the ways the second beast leads astray the earth-dwellers such that they worship the first beast. John gives us two principal tactics used by the second beast. The first is with a show of miraculous signs, particularly calling fire from heaven, the purpose of which is to make the people believe the beast has some kind of divine status and authority.

The second method employed by the beast’s underling is to have the earth-dwellers create an image of the first beast. It seems a natural follow-up to the miraculous signs to have them create a tangible form of the beast that they can then worship. In essence, the second beast is drawing the people into idolatry. When we consider this in terms of John’s social context, we immediately think of the Roman Empire, and the practice of emperor worship. It’s commonly believed that all Roman emperors were regarded as gods, however this is not strictly true. There was an official mechanism by which an emperor could be recognized as a god. First, the Senate had to approve the designation of divus to that emperor. Second, the emperor needed to be dead. This means most of the emperors, at least prior to the second century, that were considered divine, were designated that way posthumously. This didn’t prevent emperor cults rising up locally, however. Given the fact that the emperor rarely got to visit all regions of his empire, these local cults formed to pay homage to their ruler and show loyalty in his absence, not necessarily because they really thought he was a god (though no doubt some did). The first emperor temple built in Asia (the broad region in which John’s churches reside) was constructed in Pergamum in 29 BC. By the end of the first century AD, all of the seven cities in Revelation 2 and 3 had both a temple and an emperor cult proclaiming Caesar’s divinity. I said there weren’t many emperors who were officially considered divine. The first to assert his own deity, and to do so in official documents, was Emperor Domitian, and his official imperial cult was in Ephesus, which we presume was John’s home city. Domitian actually used the title “dominus et deus” (“lord and god”) in imperial documents. This is another reason why I think the period of Domitian’s rule is the most likely time frame for the writing of Revelation–it fits well with the situation John appears to be describing.

So, when John speaks of a beast that leads people into idolatry and worship of a false Messiah through making an image, his audience very likely would have seen the emperor cults and statues in their own cities and understood. But that doesn’t mean this is only relevant to John’s day. We have seen government structures like this throughout history, where idols are made of leaders, and people are expected to follow and obey, or face dire consequences–and we will continue to see power-hungry authorities rise up and claim dominance. But there are other more subtle ways this kind of idolatry seeps into our lives. Hollywood has a long history of immortalizing and near-deifying its idols. We see the same kind of thing happening more and more in politics, where in America the political pantheon consists of JFK, Reagan, Clinton, and Obama. Both entertainment and politics wield extraordinary power in the lives of many people, influencing how people spend their money, what they do with their time, and how to think about social issues. Anyone who takes worship away from the one true God is guilty of idolatry, whether or not the idols are made of stone.

In verse 15, John tells us what happens to those who refuse to worship the beast: they are killed. This is reminiscent of Daniel 3, where Nebuchadnezzar erects a golden image 90 feet tall, and commands everyone to worship it. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to bow down to the statue, and so they are consigned to the furnace. We have said that those led astray by the second beast are the “earth-dwellers”–those who are not of God’s people. One might be tempted to infer from verse 15 that the earth-dwellers did not wish to worship the image but were coerced, or that some of the earth-dwellers didn’t comply with the beast’s demands. I don’t think this is what’s being said. Rather, I think John is simply telling us that the beast had authority to execute those that refused to worship the image of the beast. We know that the “heaven-dwellers”–God’s people–will not, so they are under threat of death. I say threat because the beast has authority to execute. Verse 17 implies that not everyone who refuses to worship the image will die, but they certainly will suffer economic sanction.

The beginning of verse 15 says that the beast was given the ability to put breath into the beast’s image to make it talk. Is this a supernatural phenomenon, or is this symbolic? There’s a long history of supernatural acts happening in association with idolaters. In response to Aaron’s staff turning into a serpent, Pharaoh’s wise men and sorcerers do the same thing (Exodus 7). In the early church, writers such as Justin Martyr and Irenaeus speak of false teachers who do “mighty acts” which include exorcism, incantation, and making love potions. “Pseudo-Clement” speaks of one individual who could make statues walk, could fly, and turn himself into a serpent or goat. As sophisticated, 21st century Western Christians, we might be tempted to dismiss such things. However, as Christians we believe in the supernatural, so we mustn’t rule out these kinds of phenomena. Indeed, “Pseudo-Clement” advises Christians to discern miracles by asking what end the miracle serves: is it to convert and save, or to admonish and deceive?

That said, while we are open to the possibility that this could be speaking of a literal miracle whereby idols are made to talk, it would be strange to have something literal in the midst of all this symbolism. If the beasts, the horns, and all the other aspects we’ve discussed are symbolic, then the talking image is also more than likely symbolic. Perhaps it refers to some kind of representation of the “beast” (i.e., the global authority) that can speak and act on the beast’s behalf. Perhaps this is a false version of Christ (the second beast) and the church (the image)? The image could therefore represent local officials, or the military, or some other arm of government that does the beast’s bidding. “Worship” of these entities (obedience and submission) would be seen as worship of the beast himself.

Verses 16 and 17 speak of the scope of the beast’s influence: everyone great and small, rich and poor, free and slave is included in the beast’s worship. Worship of the beast checks all the diversity boxes, and is fully inclusive. And to make sure everyone complies, a mark is put on the forehead or right hand of all those who participate in this idolatry. This mark is the name, or number, of the beast.

We’ll get into these verses more next time, but in finishing, we made a few observations. First, the word for “mark” (Greek: charagma) is also the Greek word used for the emperor’s seal on business contracts, and also his image on a coin. It signifies his authorization, an official stamp of approval. During times of persecution, people had to prove their devotion to Caesar. It was not uncommon to have someone suspected of being less than loyal to the emperor declare “Caesar is lord,” or perform an act of worship to an image or representation of Caesar as proof of their devotion. Those that did this were then given a document, called a libellus, that certified they had proven themselves to be a devotee of the emperor. Many Christians refused, and suffered as a result. Similarly, this “mark” is proof of devotion to the beast.

In Deuteronomy 6:8, the Lord tells His people to bind His commandments on their hands and their foreheads, a practice which is taken literally by orthodox Jews to this day in their use of phylacteries–small boxes tied to the hand and forehead containing portions of Scripture.

We’ll dig more into what this means, and discuss the nature of this mark next time…

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